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Centenary of the End of the Great War: The Armistices of November 1918 and their Aftermath in Central Europe.   Leave a comment

Centrifugal Forces & Rival Nationalisms:

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Historical Perspectives & ‘Historic Hungary’:

The armed hostilities of the First World War formally came to an end with the armistice signed between the Entente and Germany at Compiegne on 11 November 1918. However, fighting did not cease everywhere, certainly not along the borders with Hungary, where the seceding nationalities of the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire were lending weight to their territorial claims through the force of arms, creating the status quo sanctioned by the victors who assembled in Paris to reconstruct the order of Europe and the wider world on 12 January 1919. It was largely the impossibility of tackling this situation that swept away the ‘pacifist democracy’ which took over in Hungary at the end of the war and thwarted the first the country had obtained for a transition to democracy. A variety of reasons have been given by historians (and politicians) for the dissolution of historic Hungary. Whereas some continue to believe firmly that it was a viable unit dismembered by a combination of rival nationalisms within the region of central Europe with the complicity of western great powers, others believe that it was the product of centrifugal forces in Europe as a whole, while acknowledging that the precise way in which the process took place was fundamentally influenced by the contingencies of the war and the peace that  concluded it. Far from being seen as predictable or inevitable at the time, the outcome shocked even those sharpest contemporary critics of the darker aspects of the pre-1914 social and political establishment in Hungary and its policy towards the national minorities.

Lines of demarcation in historic Hungary – Neutral zones (November 1918 – March 1919)

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It was all the more shocking for them because they came largely from the more progressive camp who were well-disposed towards the western liberal democracies, but whose future in Hungary’s political scene was destroyed by the circumstances of peacemaking. The tragedy of the aftermath of the First World War, its armistices and the Paris Peace Treaties, especially – in the case of Hungary – that of Trianon in 1920, was that it contributed towards the survival of reactionary nationalist forces which had steered the country into the abyss of war and all its negative consequences in the first place. President Wilson had ‘decreed’ that the frontiers of post-war Europe would be decided by its people, not its politicians. ‘Self-determination’ was to be the guiding principle; plebiscites would make clear ‘the people’s will’. In Hungary’s case, this was to mean that the new boundaries would be drawn to exclude all but the majority Magyar-peopled areas of the Carpathian basin. Also, the new Hungary soon found itself in the position of having a surplus of wheat which it could market only in a world already overstocked with grain. The collapse in world wheat-prices increased the difficulty in providing funds to buy the timber and other raw materials the country required. Moreover, Budapest had grown to its size as the largest city in central Europe as the capital of a large country which had now been reduced by half and would soon be reduced by two-thirds. Over a third of the Magyar peoples were now living outside the country.

An Assassination on Hallowe’en & The ‘Aster Revolution’ in Hungary:

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On 4 November 1918, Austria-Hungary signed an armistice with Italy in Padua. Four days earlier, on All Hallow’s Eve, 31 October unidentified soldiers broke into the home of the former Hungarian Prime Minister, István Tisza (pictured above in a painting by Gyula Benczúr), and shot him dead. Other assailants were also on their way, it was reported, to assassinate the hated count. For four whole years between 1913 and May 1917, when he was dismissed by Charles IV, he had headed the war cabinet. He was a born party leader who possessed such an effective political personality that he had been able to defend the old order with fundamental force. In 1914, he had opposed the declaration of war, not out of principle but because of his belief that the Monarchy was unprepared. By that time, he had already survived one assassination attempt by an MP carrying a revolver. He was the first victim of a revolutionary wave which followed on naturally from the loss of the war, as it did in Germany. However, it was not just the politicians and the political order and system which was affected by this wave. It led to the extensive loss of life and property throughout Hungarian society. The ragged, bitter soldiers streaming home from the collapsed fronts encountered people sunk in misery at home; nearly every family was mourning someone lost in the war or waiting for a prisoner of war to return. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had won over many of the prisoners, many thousands of whom still remained there, voluntarily fighting alongside the Red Army in the civil war that followed. Strikes and mutinies had been on the agenda throughout 1918 and were now also fuelled by these new converts to Bolshevism.

Even amongst all this domestic turmoil, the military situation looked deceptively good until a few months before the end of the war. Austro-Hungarian armies were still deep in enemy lands, with the war aims apparently accomplished. It was only after the last great German offensive on the Western Front had collapsed in August 1918, and the Entente counter-offensive started there as well as in the Balkans, that the Monarchy’s positions on all fronts became untenable. Commenting on the impending surrender of Bulgaria, Foreign Minister István Burián’s evaluation of the situation before the Common Council of Ministers on 28 September was brief and unequivocal: That is the end of it. On 2 October, the Monarchy solicited the Entente for an armistice and peace negotiations, based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points, only to be disappointed to learn from the reply that, having recognised the Czecho-Slovak  and South Slav claims, Wilson was in no position to negotiate on the basis of granting the ethnic minorities autonomy within an empire whose integrity could no longer be maintained. For a century, that empire had been saved from collapse only by the will of its rulers, the Hapsburgs. It had been dominated by its German and Magyar masters, who had failed to come to terms with the Czechs, Poles, Croats, Slovenes and Romanians living in its peripheries.

By mid-October, all the nationalities had their national councils, which proclaimed their independence, a move which now enjoyed the official sanction of the Entente; on 11 October, the Poles seceded from the Empire. The Hapsburg dynasty had held together a huge territory in Central Europe, centring on the Middle Basin of the Danube, so that certain economic advantages accrued to its millions of inhabitants. There was free trade within that vast territory; a unified railway and river transport system and an outlet to the Adriatic Sea assisted imperial trade and commerce. There was a complementary exchange of the products of the plain and the mountains – grain for timber and materials. This ramshackle empire could not withstand the strain of four years of war. The monarchy was collapsing into chaos by this time as Charles IV made a desperate attempt on 16 October to preserve it by announcing the federalisation of Austria, which was to no avail. At the front, the Italians took bloody revenge on the disintegrating army of a state which was breaking apart, launching an offensive in the Valley of Piave on 23 October which left an indelible mark of horror on a generation of men. Between the 28th and the 31st the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Croats and the Ruthenes also seceded from the Empire.

Within Hungary, the effects of the revolutionary ‘milieu’ were mitigated, to a large extent, by Hungary’s bourgeois revolutionary leader, Count Mihály Károlyi, who as a radical left-wing aristocrat, was soon to distribute his estate among the landless. October 1918 had certainly been a month of dramatic scenes in the Hungarian parliament. In the country, deposed Prime Minister István Tisza was widely held to bear supreme responsibility for all the suffering of the previous four years. He declared:  I agree with … Count Károlyi. We have lost this war. He referred to a speech made on 16 October, the same day that Charles IV had announced the federalisation of Austria, by the leader of the opposition, who had also warned that Hungary might lose the peace as well unless suitable policies were adopted. These ought to have included, in the first place, the appointment of an administration acceptable to the Entente powers as well as to a people whose mood was increasingly revolutionary in order to save the territorial integrity of the country and to prevent it falling into anarchy.

On 23 October, the third cabinet of Prime Minister Sándor Wekerle stepped down and on that night Károlyi organised his Hungarian National Council from members of his own Independence Party, the Bourgeois Radical Party, the Social Democratic Party and various circles of intellectuals from the capital. Its twelve-point proclamation called for the immediate conclusion of a separate peace treaty, the independence of Hungary, far-reaching democratic reforms and reconciliation with the nationalities, without harm to the territorial integrity of the state. The National Council functioned as a counter-government in the following week since, contrary to expectations and common sense, Charles IV hesitated in calling on Károlyi to form a government. He preferred Count János Hadik, a follower of the younger Count Andrássy who was popular among MPs hostile to Károlyi. But Hadik had no party, and could only count on the demoralised military to maintain order.

On 28 October, a mass of protesters marched from Pest to Buda Castle, the Monarchy’s palace in the capital, to demand Károlyi’s appointment from Archduke Joseph, the monarch’s representative. Three of them were shot dead by the police. Strikes and further protests followed in the next two days, with occasional clashes between the newly organised Soldiers’ Council and leftist Socialists on the one hand and government units on the other, while Károlyi and the National Council advised moderation and awaited the outcome, even though on 30 October troops were ordered to gain control of their headquarters at the Hotel Astoria in the centre of Pest. The soldiers refused, most of them deserting, carried away by the enthusiasm of the civilians who swarmed onto the streets, cheering the National Council. They captured police buildings, railway stations and telephone exchanges. The traditional flower for All Souls’ Day, 2nd November (more important in Hungary than All Saints’ Day as a time to place fresh flowers on the graves of departed relatives) replaced the insignia torn off from uniforms and appeared in the button-holes of civilian suits, hence the name Aster Revolution, which succeeded on Hallowe’en with the appointment of Károlyi as Premier. Later that afternoon, just before the new government took its oath, István Tisza was murdered by a group of unknown soldiers in his own home, no doubt a symbolic act.

Hungary’s ‘Bourgeois Revolutionary’ Government of November 1918:

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The new government’s programme was virtually the same as the twelve points published a week earlier, and Károlyi’s cabinet was also recruited from the same forces as the National Council, with members of his own party obtaining most of the seats. The crumbling of the whole edifice of the old Monarchy changed Hungary beyond recognition. Paradoxically, however, the dissolution of the historic Kingdom, one of the greatest shocks the country suffered and survived, also created the opportunity for a new beginning. But whereas the collapse of the dualist system cleared important obstacles from the way to democratic transition, the lack of new forms of government was symptomatic of the belatedness of this development, seriously limiting its scope for action. Between them, the parties of the National Council represented a small minority of the aristocracy and lesser nobility, some of the bourgeoisie, diverse circles of the intelligentsia, skilled workers and the trade unions. Missing were the influential haute bourgeoisie, indeed most of the middle classes. The involvement of their highest strata in the war-related business identified them closely with the old régime, and events in Russia turned them off revolution completely, whatever the label. In addition, the truly generous terms offered to the leaders of the Slav and Romanian national parties might have been snapped up in 1914, but the external situation made them almost impossible to achieve in 1918. The attempt to draw them into the Hungarian National Council failed.

Nevertheless, the internal situation in Hungary still held out the promise of overhauling the ossified social and political institutions which bore some responsibility for the disaster of dissolution. It was hoped that a proper, consistently pursued policy towards the minorities, combined with the good relations Károlyi had developed with the Entente powers might Hungary from the consequences of the secret agreements those powers had concluded with the Slavs and Romanians during the war. The first indications in these respects were rather disappointing: the western allies seemed more ready to satisfy their partners in the region, even at the expense of departing from Wilson’s principles, than to reward the political changes in Hungary, and not even full autonomy could keep the Slovaks and the Romanians within ‘historic Hungary’. Croat claims were considered justified by practically everyone in Hungary, and the Serbs did not even consider negotiating over their demands. Wider international developments soon determined that the potential for internal democratic transformation would not materialise. On 3rd-4th November, an Armistice was signed in Padova (Padua) at Villa Giusti between Italy and what was left of Austria-Hungary and the Dual Monarchy immediately broke up into fragments.

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The Emperor was left alone and without friends in the vast echoing corridors of the Palace of Schönbrunn. Following the armistice with Italy, the empire took only a week to unravel. Charles IV was forced to abdicate, and the former territories fell apart into seven divisions, with both Austria and Hungary being reduced to the status of minor states. Worse was to follow for Hungary, as the terms of the armistice signed at Padova were not accepted by the commander of the French forces in the Balkans, General d’Esperey, and his forces crossed the Sava into Hungarian territory. Károlyi, hoping that the occupation would only be a temporary measure, was forced to sign, on 13 November in Belgrade, an armistice requiring the withdrawal of the Hungarian army beyond the Drava-Maros line, its severe reduction and the right to free passage for Entente troops across Hungary. What was held by many people to be the failure of the Károlyi government in not averting the greatest national humiliation Hungary had faced since the Ottoman invasion nearly four centuries earlier could do otherwise but prejudice its chances to cope with its domestic difficulties. It undermined the confidence which had previously built up in the ability of the new government to maintain order at home, the tasks it had to cope with were immense.

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Above & below: The election of Mihály Károlyi as President of the Republic on 16 November 1918 and the Proclamation of the Republic. He was ‘leader of the nation’ during the transitional period after the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed and was inaugurated as President in January 1919.

In the initial hope that the new government would be able to secure Hungary’s old borders as well as law, order and property, the old élite accepted, following the abdication of Charles IV, the dissolution of parliament, the investing of the National Council with provisional legislative authority, and the proclamation of the republic on 16 November. They were also, for a short while, impressed by the relatively little violence which had attended the revolution, especially in the urban centres. But Károlyi had received his very limited power from the Habsburgs, and though elected as President of the Republic on 16 November (though he was not inaugurated until January 1919), his gradual shift to the left in order to enable a democratic, constitutional evolution to take place alienated the ‘old guard’. He embarked upon the social and political reforms announced in his programme, which were badly needed in view of the explosive atmosphere in the country. But he soon proved himself too weak for the post of trusteeship in bankruptcy that he had to fill as head of the nation.

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The simultaneous negotiations of the Minister for Minorities, Oszkár Jászi, with the Romanian leaders at Arad, were also of no avail. On 20 November, the Romanians seceded and by the end of the month, their army had advanced to the demarcation line, and even beyond that, as far as Kolozsvár after the Romanians of Transylvania proclaimed their union with the Kingdom of Romania at a meeting in Gyulafehérvár on 1 December. Then the provisional assembly in Vienna also declared that Austria was an independent state. Although the Slovak leader was inclined to accept autonomy as a provisional solution until the peace treaty was signed, the Czechs would not, and fighting broke out along the Slovak border. The Hungarians received a memorandum from the Entente requiring them to withdraw beyond a line which later became the border between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The Ruthenians were the only nationality who, as the unification of all Ukrainian land seemed unlikely at the time, accepted the autonomy offered to them. By the time the Paris peace conference convened on 12 January 1919, Hungary had already lost more than half of the territory and population it had comprised before the war broke out.

Jászi’s idea of the Danubian United States, which he had detailed extensively in a book, was to remain the stuff of dreams. The Károlyi government has been harshly judged and blamed ever since for not resisting, in particular, the ‘land-grabbing’ Romanians, but the armed forces at its disposal would hardly have been a match for the hostile forces ranged against them, backed by the French. More importantly, its legitimacy was based on its supposedly good relations with the Entente powers, so it felt it could ill afford to discard ‘Wilsonianism’, even when they did. The contemporary maps below illustrate the areas, ‘races’, population and economic resources of the partitioned empire. A comparative study of the four sketch-maps reveals the different characteristics of these divisions.

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As winter of 1918-19 set in, the economic blockade by the western Allies was still in force, trading ties with Austria were seriously disrupted, and territories of crucial economic importance in the north, east and south of Hungary were under occupation, leading to shortages of raw materials, fuel which caused chaos in production. Additionally, the most fundamental means of subsistence were unavailable to millions in a country inundated by demobilised soldiers, the continuing stream of returning prisoners of war, and refugees from beyond the demarcation lines. Urban dwellers suspected landowners and smallholding peasants of hoarding grain and holding back deliveries of other agricultural produce; many were leaving their land uncultivated because of impending land reform, which the rural proletariat urged on the government ever more impatiently. There was probably no political force in Hungary at this turbulent time that would have been able to satisfy all of these competing interests and expectations; Károlyi and the democratic politicians around him, whose undoubtedly considerable talents were suited to relatively peaceful and stable conditions but not to national emergencies, were certainly unable to provide such a forceful administration. Even had he not been assassinated, it is unlikely that István Tisza could have done better.

There were already, waiting in the wings on both the left and the right, those who were willing to provide a more authoritarian administration. On the radical Right, there were groups such as the Hungarian National Defence Association, led by Gyula Gömbös and the Association of Awakening Hungarians who impatiently urged the armed defence of the country from November 1918 on. They had their strongest base among the many thousands of demobilised officers and dismissed public servants, many of the latter being refugees from the occupied territories of historic Hungary. In their view, the dissolution of the country was largely the responsibility of the enervated conservative liberalism of the dualist period, which they proposed to transcend by authoritarian government and measures aimed at the redistribution of property in favour of the Christian provincial middle classes at the expense of the, ‘predominantly Jewish’, metropolitan bourgeoisie.

But for the time being the streets belonged more to the political Left. Appeals to workers and soldiers from moderate Social Democratic ministers to patience and order seemed to alienate the disaffected masses. Their new heroes were the Communists, organised as a party on 24 November 1918 by Béla Kun, a former journalist and trade union activist recently returned from captivity in Russia. Like many other former prisoners of war, Kun became convinced of the superiority of the system of Soviets on the Russian model to that of parliamentary democracy, and communist propaganda also promised international stability arising from the fraternity of Soviet republics whose triumph throughout Europe the Communists saw as inevitable. Within a few weeks of the party’s formation, this attractive utopia and its accompanying populist demagogy earned it a membership of around forty thousand, and several times as many supporters whom they could mobilise, mainly among the urban proletariat and the young intelligentsia susceptible to revolutionary romanticism.

Blunders or Back-Stabbing? – The Collapse of Germany:

Reflecting with the benefit of hindsight, and with greater meaning, in his War Memoirs of 1933, Lloyd George admitted that there had been little cause for the victory celebrations in western Europe:

… It is true that the World War ended, as I still believe, in a victory for Right. But it was won not on the merits of the case, but on a balance of resources and blunders. The reserves of manpower, of material and of money at the command of the victorious Powers were overwhelmingly greater than those possessed by the vanquished. They were thus better able to maintain a prolonged struggle. Both sides blundered badly, but the mistakes committed by the Central Powers were more fatal, inasmuch as they did not possess the necessary resources to recover from their errors of judgement. … The Allied mistake prolonged the War. The German mistake lost them the War.

For their part, in the years following the end of the war many Germans, especially those on the right, came to blame socialists and Jews for ‘stabbing in the back’ the military and, by extension, the Fatherland, and so losing the war. The power and resolve of the Allied offensives and the blunders and exhaustion of the German Army were discounted. The events of the autumn of 1918 were to become shrouded in myth and lies. Many Germans convinced themselves that they had been tricked into signing the armistice by the Allies and that they could have fought on and would certainly have done so had they known of the harshness of the treaty that was to be offered them in 1919. A widespread belief developed in the army that Germany had indeed been stabbed in the back by revolutionaries and strikers. Jews were said to have played a major part in this, a view held by the Kaiser himself, and of course, subsequently propagated by Hitler and the Nazis. It was convenient for many, not least those in the military who had lost their nerve in 1918, to blame the defeat on a nebulous conspiracy of ‘reds’, foreigners and politicians, those who were later popularly described as the November Criminals.

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The truth was that by the end of September 1918, Germany’s military leaders realised that they faced defeat and sought a way to end the war.  They paved the way for the democratisation of the country by handing over power to civilian ministers. Ludendorff told the political leaders that an armistice was imperative, and Prince Max von Baden was appointed Chancellor to use his international reputation for moderation in negotiations. On 3 October he requested the US President to take in hand the restoration of peace but in the exchange of notes that followed it was clear that the Allies demanded little short of unconditional surrender. Ludendorff then changed his mind and wished to fight on, but growing popular unrest showed that the German people were in no mood for this, and neither was the new Government. Short of proper clothing and fuel, weakened by semi-starvation and racked by the influenza epidemic which killed 1,722 people on one day (15 October) in Berlin, they demanded peace and turned on the leaders who had promised them victory and brought defeat. Ludendorff was dismissed and steps were taken to transfer real power to the Reichstag, since Wilson had, in any case, refused to enter into negotiations with “monarchical autocrats”.

By the end of October, a civil war was threatening because the Kaiser was refusing to abdicate, despite the relentless pressure being put upon him. He left Berlin on the 29th for the army headquarters at Spa,  where Hindenburg told him that the army would not support him against the people. On the same day mutiny broke out in the navy, the sailors refusing the order to put to sea. By 4 November the mutiny was general, with Kiel falling into the hands of the mutineers. On the same day, the Austro-Hungarian Armistice with Italy exposed Bavaria to attack. A few days later the mutineers had occupied the main cities of north-west Germany, and insurrection had also broken out in Munich. On 7 November, the German civilian delegates passed through the Allied lines to receive the Armistice terms drawn up by the Allied commanders. On 9 November, revolutionaries occupied the streets of Berlin. Friedrich Ebert, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was appointed Chancellor and a republic was declared from the steps of the Reichstag. The armistice terms imposed by the Allies on 11 November were severe and left Germany prostrate. It surrendered its guns and fleet and withdrew its armies from conquered territories. The German Government accepted the terms because the Allies made a solemn promise that the principles which President Wilson had set out in his Fourteen Points should form the basis of the peace settlement which was to follow. By the end of November 1918, Germany had been transformed into a democratic republic, led by the largest political movement in Germany, the Social Democratic Party.

Certainly, the First World War had created the conditions that shaped the later development and ambitions of Hitler’s ‘Reich’. The conflict generated a great deal of physical hardship on the home front with severe shortages of food and steadily deteriorating social conditions. By the end of the war, four years of privation had created a widespread hostility which erupted at the end of the war in a wave of revolutionary violence. Organised labour did better than other groups because of shortages of men for the arms factories, but this exacerbated tensions between and within classes. Many associated the new republic with national humiliation and the downfall of the monarchy. Neither the traditional social forces who lost out in 1918 nor the forces of the populist-nationalist right liked the new government, which they identified with the triumph of communism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. The political transition in 1918-19 created a sharp polarisation in German society which existed down to 1933, but it was not responsible for the military blunders which had led to Germany’s defeat, nor was it responsible for the opening of negotiations leading to an armistice. The military leadership under Ludendorff had already effectively surrendered, allowing the Allies to dictate terms.

The First World War also ended Germany’s long period of economic and trade growth and her pretensions to great power status. German defeat in 1918 left the economy with a war debt far beyond anything the government could afford to repay. This was before the victorious allies seized German economic resources and presented Germany with a bill for 132 billion gold marks as the final schedule of reparation payment, which it would take until 2010 for them to finally clear. Most importantly, the ‘Coupon Election’ was to weaken the authority of Britain in the upcoming Paris Peace Conference in such a way as to undermine Lloyd George’s instinct to treat Germany as an important trading partner which needed to be able to rebuild its economy. The British delegation alone among the European victors could exercise a moderating and healing influence, both from the authority which the War had given her and from her detachment from old European jealousies. But the Prime Minister would go to these councils bound by the extravagant election pledges he had made in 1918 in which he had promised to demand penalties from ‘the enemy’; whatever words of conciliation he might speak would be obscured by ugly echoes of the election campaign – his mandate was to ‘Make Germany Pay’.

This should have been the moment, then, at the end of 1918, when the conditions which had produced the bloody battles, blunders, and massacres of 1914-18 had to be finally removed, and for good. Europe could not simply be left to blunder out of the mud and blood as it had blundered in, in H. G. Wells’ phrase. Preposterous empires and monarchs, as well as tribal churches and territories,  had to be done away with. Instead, there would be created a League of Free Nations along the lines proposed by Wilson in his Fourteen Points which were to form the basis for the Paris peace negotiations which began the following January. This virtual international government, informed by science and motivated by the disinterested guardianship of the fate of common humanity, must inaugurate a new history. Otherwise, the sacrifice of millions would have been perfectly futile, the bad joke of the grinning skull. But the idealists who advocated this new form of peacebuilding were to be bitterly disappointed by the vindictiveness of the Treaty of Versailles, which imposed the blame and cost of the war on Germany, and the injustice of the Treaty of Trianon, which dismembered central Europe in the name of the ideal of ‘self-determination’, while in reality rewarding land-grabbing nationalists and punishing the Hungarians for joining a war they did not start.

Sources:

István Lázár (1992), An Illustrated History of Hungary. Budapest: Corvina.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Irene Richards, J. B. Goodson, J. A. Morris (1936), A Sketch-Map History of the Great War and After, 1914-1935. London: Harrap.

 

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Years of Transition – Britain, Europe & the World: 1989 – 1992.   Leave a comment

Heroes and Villains at Home and Abroad:

In the middle of all the heroic struggles for freedom in the world in 1989, the Westminster village ‘bubble’ witnessed an event which seemed anything but heroic. Thatcher had been challenged for the leadership of the Conservative Party by Sir Anthony Meyer, an elderly ‘backbencher’, pro-European, who was seen as a ‘stalking horse’ for bigger beasts to enter the fray in a challenge to the Prime Minister. He was much mocked on the Conservative benches as ‘the stalking donkey’, In the 1989 leadership election on 5 December, Meyer was defeated by 314 votes to 33, yet the vote was ominous for Thatcher when it was discovered sixty Tory MPs had either voted for ‘the donkey’ or abstained. Meyer himself said that people started to think the unthinkable, while in the shadows, prowling through Conservative associations and the corridors of Westminster was a far more dangerous, wounded creature.

Michael Heseltine, who had walked out of the Tory cabinet four years earlier, was licking his wounds, recovering and ready to pounce. He showed sympathy towards Tory MPs, in trouble in their constituencies over the poll tax, but tried neither to lick his lips nor sharpen his claws too obviously in public. On 31 March 1990, the day before the poll tax was due to take effect in England and Wales, there was a massive demonstration against it which ended with a riot in Trafalgar Square (pictured below). Scaffolding was ripped apart and used to throw at the mounted police, cars were set on fire and shop windows were smashed. More than three hundred people were arrested and four hundred policemen were hurt.

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Thatcher dismissed the riots as mere wickedness, which of course they were. Yet beneath them, it was obvious that there was a growing swell of protest by the lower middle class, normally law-abiding voters who insisted that they simply could not and would not pay it. That was what shook her cabinet and her MPs, worried about their electoral prospects in 1992. One by one, the inner core of true Thatcherites peeled off from their leader. Her Environment Secretary, Nicholas Ridley, had to resign after being rude about the Germans in a magazine interview. John Major turned out to be worryingly pro-European after all. Ian Gow, one of her closest associates, was murdered by an IRA bomb at his home. As the Conservatives’ ratings slumped in the country, Tory MPs who had opposed the tax, including Michael Heseltine’s key organiser, Michael Mates, began to ask their colleagues whether it was not now time that she was removed from power.

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Abroad, great world events continued to overshadow the last days of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. A few weeks after the fall of Ceaucescu in Romania, on 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela, the man whom Margaret Thatcher had once denounced as a terrorist, was released from gaol in South Africa to global acclaim. In April, Douglas Hurd, who had replaced Geoffrey Howe as the British Foreign Secretary, visited Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow. The BBC’s John Simpson (pictured below) was among a group of journalists had assembled outside the Spassky Gate he Kremlin and as the bells sounded their strange falling peel on the hour they were ushered in by a side entrance.

Inside, there was little obvious security; for Simpson, the Kremlin in 1990 was a more relaxed place than the Palace of Westminster or the White House. However, a Kremlin official was watching and listening to them nervously. The doors were opened and they went into a room that was large and echoing, with Gorbachev and Hurd sitting with their translators in one corner of it, at a small table. Later, Hurd said that Gorbachev had been his usual enthusiastic and ebullient self, but to Simpson, he looked a good deal older and more tired than when he had seen him last in Belgrade, describing to the camera the problems he was having with the ‘regional problems’ in the Soviet Union. Only his eyes remained as intense and concentrated as they had then. He leaned across the table, holding Douglas Hurd’s gaze while their public compliments were translated. Simpson commented:

If the problems of coping with a collapsing empire were telling on him, they had not crushed him. The man who asked Margaret Thatcher at length in December 1984 about how Britain had divested herself of her colonies now had personal experience of the process. 

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At the time, Gorbachev had his problems with the demands of the Baltic States to leave the Soviet Union quickly and without face-saving negotiations. As the journalists grouped around the table where he and Douglas Hurd faced each other, Simpson caught the eye of Eduard Shevardnadze, Soviet Foreign Minister, who was sitting next to Gorbachev:

I mouthed the word ‘Question’ to him and nodded towards Gorbachev. Shevardnadze shrugged and mouthed back the English word ‘Try’. But directly my colleagues and I began asking about Lithuania, Gorbachev smiled and shook his head. “I answered several hundred questions from the ‘Komosol’ this morning. That’s enough for me,” he said. The strain in his face seemed greater than ever. We were ushered out, and the double doors closed on him.

For John Simpson, the lesson of the winter of change in Central and Eastern Europe was that, no matter how hard the Communist Party tried to reform itself, the voters would punish it for the sins and failures of the past. That was what happened at the polls in Hungary later that spring, Imre Pozsgay had made multi-party democracy a possibility; his newly-formed Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) of ‘reformed’ communists received a tiny percentage of the vote. I observed the spirit of national renewal which seemed to sweep the centre-right Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) to power under the leadership of József Antall, the first freely-elected Prime Minister for forty years. In East Germany, most people agreed that Hans Modrow, the former Communist prime minister, was the best and most respected candidate standing in the election; he and his fellow communists felt that it was a considerable achievement to have won sixteen per cent of the vote. By the first few months of 1990 the mood in the Soviet Union was such that if there had been an election there, Simpson sensed that the Communist Party would have been swept out of office. Realising this, Gorbachev insisted that his election as President of the Soviet Union should be carried out by the deputies of the People’s Congress, not by popular vote. When local elections were held in the spring, Communist candidates usually fared badly.

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Above: August 1990 – The Iraqi Army invades and annexes Kuwait.

On 2 August, however, the whole world was taken by surprise by events in the Middle East. John Simpson was on holiday in the south of France (I was on a delayed honeymoon on Jersey) when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, a small but oil-rich nation to the southern end of the region. Iraq was a Soviet ally, but it had also enjoyed the tacit support of both Britain and the US in its war with Iran and had secretly been provided with arms by them while it continued to torture and oppress both its Shi’ite and Kurdish minorities, as well as many dissidents. Within three hours of hearing the news on the radio, Simpson was on a plane back to London and two weeks later he was part of the first European television team to be allowed into Baghdad since the invasion. Negotiation had failed to dislodge the Iraqi forces and Thatcher had urged President George Bush to go into what became the Gulf War. An international coalition had been assembled. Simpson had decided that he wanted to report the war from the epicentre of the crisis, from Baghdad itself. He had left Iraq four months earlier, assuming that the authorities there would never have him back.

This was because he had become involved in the case of Farzad Bazoft, an Iranian journalist working for the Observer in Iraq. Between 1987 and 1989 the young Iranian had travelled to Iraq five times with nothing more substantial than British travel documents. The last time was in September 1989, and on the day he left London the news leaked out that a huge explosion had taken place at Iraqi government’s weapons manufacturing plant at Al Qa’qa sixty miles south of Baghdad. Committed to investigative journalism, Farzad Bazoft used his ‘considerable charm’ to persuade an attractive British nurse living in Baghdad, Daphne Parish, to drive him down there. He also asked an Iraqi minister and the information ministry for help to visit there and told the Observer over a heavily tapped phone line precisely what he was going to do. Farzad was picked up as he was leaving Baghdad airport at the end of his visit. In his luggage were some samples he had gathered from the roadside at Al Qa’qa; presumably, he wanted to have them analysed back in London to reveal what type of weapon had exploded there the previous month. He was tortured and eventually confessed to everything they wanted: in particular, to spying for the British and the Israelis. Daphne Parish refused to confess since she had not broken the law. When the Iraqi authorities put them together Farzad tried to persuade her to do as he had. It would, he said, mean that she would be released.

It didn’t of course; it just meant that the Iraqis had the grounds they wanted to execute Farzad Bazoft. At their trial, Farzad was sentenced to death and Parish to fifteen years. No one translated the sentence for them or told them what was going to happen. A British diplomat had to break the news to Farzad that he was to be hanged directly their meeting ended. Minutes later he was taken out and executed. Daphne Parish was released after ten difficult months in prison. Hanging Farzad Bazoft was Saddam Hussein’s first open defiance of the West. Mrs Thatcher had asked for his release, and called his action ‘an act of barbarism’. Those of us who had been campaigning on behalf of Iraqi and Kurdish dissidents who had fallen foul of such acts of imprisonment, torture and murder for the previous ten years, only to be told these were part of internecine conflict felt some vindication at last in these tragic circumstances. Had firm action, including effective sanctions, been taken against the Ba’athist régime been taken sooner, not only might Farzad and many others have been saved, but the whole sorry chapters of the wars in Iraq might have been unwritten. If the tabloid press in Britain hadn’t suddenly become hysterical about it, insulting the Iraqis, Farzad might, at least, have been spared the hangman’s noose.

All this had determined John Simpson to go to Baghdad himself to report the reality of Saddam’s reign of terror. Six weeks after Farzad’s death, he arrived there with a small team from the BBC and several other British journalists. There were daily demonstrations outside the British embassy complaining about the efforts which the British government was then belatedly making to stop weapons technology reaching Iraq. Simpson and his team were virtual prisoners in their hotel, and no one in the streets wanted to talk to them, knowing that such contacts with Western journalists were dangerous. The Ministry of Information decided to impound all of their video cassettes. Simpson had said something in a broadcast about the total surveillance under which they were working, which had upset their minders. Eamonn Matthews, the producer, decided to stay on to on for a few days to get them back and was picked up at the airport the following day exactly as Farzad had been. He was threatened, treated roughly, and kept a virtual prisoner overnight. When he walked into the Newsnight office in London his face showed signs of the stress he had been under. Simpson assumed he wouldn’t be let back into Iraq, and at that time, was not too upset about that.

When he changed his mind after the invasion of Kuwait in August, Saddam’s henchmen had already started taking British, European and American hostages. The risk seemed to be extremely high, but he couldn’t back away from it. The BBC didn’t like it, however, but he persuaded his bosses to let him see if he could get permission to return there in the first place. Since Britain had cut its diplomatic relations with Iraq after the execution of Farzad Bazoft, he had to apply for a visa in Paris. After receiving a ‘polite’ refusal from the Iraqi ambassador there, he processed through the Middle East reporting on the growing crisis and trying to find a way to get to Baghdad, with the producer and picture editor, Mike Davis. They started in Cairo, moved on to Jerusalem, and ended up in Amman, all without success in getting the visas. Just as he was about to leave for London, he heard that Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister was coming to Amman to give a press conference. He asked a couple of questions during the course of it, then ‘doorstepped’ Aziz as he left:

“Would it be possible for the BBC to visit Baghdad?”

“Why not?” he said, as he climbed into his expensive limousine. This time, though, I had the faint sense that he meant it.

The following day the Iraqi embassy in London called. Our visas had come through. 

When Simpson and his crew finally arrived in Baghdad, the streets were silent and empty. People were terrified of what might happen and mostly stayed indoors with their families. On his first afternoon there, Saddam Hussein visited some of the British hostages from Kuwait, accompanied by Iraqi television cameras, and stroked the hair of a young English boy as he talked to the parents. In an Arab context, there was nothing wrong with that, but back in Britain, the pictures set everyone’s teeth on edge. John Simpson was still meeting officials when the pictures were broadcast, and in between handshakes he tried to make out what was happening on the screen in the corner of the ministerial office. He asked if the hostages were going to be released, but the officials were vague and unwilling to commit themselves. They later discovered what Saddam had said during his meeting with the British family was that women and children taken hostage in Kuwait would be able to leave. They were brought up by coach to Baghdad and flown out from there. Many of the women behaved superbly, as Simpson reported. They smiled and kept calm while the Iraqi cameramen sweated and shoved them around. They talked in terms of quiet endearment about husbands and sons they had been forced to leave behind, and whose fate was completely uncertain. Many had no homes to go to in Britain, and no idea about where their future income would come from, or what it would be. Yet they spoke of returning to Britain’s green and pleasant lands and…

… to nice cups of tea … as if nothing had changed since the Blitz. They fought back the tears for the sake of their children, and busied themselves with their luggage so that the cameras couldn’t pry into their emotions.

Others complained. Their meals were cold, they couldn’t use the swimming pool in the luxurious hotel which the Iraqis had set aside for them in Baghdad, the journey from Kuwait had taken too long. …

Many complained that the Foreign Office or the British embassy had failed to help them enough, and seemed to feel it was all the  Government’s fault, as though Saddam Hussein were an act of God like drought or flooding, and Mrs Thatcher should do something about it.

“I don’t see why we should suffer because of her and President Bush,” said one affronted woman.

Another agreed. “If she’s going to call Saddam a dictator, why didn’t she wait till we were safely out of Kuwait?”

The British tabloid press lapped all this up, of course. They weren’t allowed into Iraq, so they interviewed the women as they came through Amman. Journey Through Hell was the way one headline described the trip by air-conditioned coach from Baghdad; Burning desert, torturing thirst, fiends, evil, sobbing loved ones, anguish: the newspaper hack’s thesaurus was in constant use. When he went back to London for a short break, the first ‘poster’ he saw declared Thatcher Warns Evil Saddam. As John Simpson commented,…

When the newspapers put a compulsory ‘evil’ in front of someone’s name, you know there’s a particular need for coolness and rationality. And to prove the superiority of our civilization over Saddam’s, someone threw a brick through the window of the Iraqi Cultural Centre in Tottenham Court Road.

Simpson returned to Baghdad after a week or so, staying there from September to November 1990. There were some ‘peace tourists’ there too; well-intentioned people who hoped to prevent the war by join the Iraqi protests in Baghdad or try a bit of freelance negotiation. Others had come to plead for the release of their fellow citizens whom Saddam Hussein was holding hostage. As far as the foreign press and media were concerned, a government which had been so paranoid about them a few months earlier now invited them to Baghdad in such large numbers that the pool of English-speaking Iraqi ‘spooks’ was drained by the effort of following them around. By the autumn, there were well over a hundred journalists from the main western countries, and the main international news organisations. The man who had invited them, the chief civil servant in the Information ministry, Najji al-Haddithi, spoke fluent English and had managed to persuade his minister to approach Saddam Hussein with a plan: that Iraq should now regard Western journalists as useful in its own propaganda campaign. As a result, the régime gradually opened its doors to every major British broadsheet newspaper and every major American, Canadian, Japanese and European news organisation, which each had its own representative in Baghdad.

Simpson was allowed to stay the longest because he got on well with Najji al-Hadithi, who liked Britain and the British and had a British sense of humour. In reciprocation, and as he got to know both officials and private citizens, Simpson grew to love Iraq and to sympathise with it too. At a private dinner party in October, he asked al-Hadithi why he allowed so many foreign journalists to come to Baghdad when, only a few months before, the Iraqi government had kept the doors so firmly shut. The chief civil servant answered him,

Because we want you to see that we are human beings like yourselves. So that your readers and viewers will see it. So that if, God forbid, President Bush decides to bomb us, you will know what you are bombing. You are a form of protection for us.

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In the Gulf War, US marines arrive at Khabji, Saudi Arabia, to reinforce the front line.

In all his six months in the country, however, John Simpson had not managed to meet Saddam Hussein himself. In November 1990, just as he was about to arrange the details of their meeting, he found himself suddenly unable to get in touch with the officials, including al-Hadithi. He knew that this was because of Saddam Hussein’s unwillingness to let anyone edit his words. Simpson had warned the officials that the BBC would not be able to run ninety minutes of the president uncut, that this was something that would not be allowed to any British politician, even to the Prime Minister herself. The Iraqis resolved this stand-off by offering the interview to Independent Television News instead, who said yes at once. Simpson was furious and decided to go back to London: he was also tired, after ten weeks in Baghdad without a break. More to the point, when the news came through of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, he decided he wanted to cover the campaign for the succession.

Saint Margaret – Down and Out in Paris and London:

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The final act in Margaret Thatcher’s near-eleven-year premiership had begun on the European continent earlier that autumn, which was also where it was to end at the end of that remarkable season in British politics. There was another summit in Rome and further pressure on the Delors plan. Again, Thatcher felt herself being pushed and dragged towards a federal scheme for Europe. She vented her anger in the Commons, shredding the proposals with the words, ‘No! … No! … No!’ After observing her flaming anti-Brussels tirade, Geoffrey Howe decided, that he had had enough. The former Chancellor and Foreign Secretary had already been demoted by Thatcher to being ‘Leader of the House’. Serving in the two great offices of state, and now Deputy Prime-Minister, a face-saving but significant status, he had endured a decade of her slights and snarls, her impatience and mockery. He would finally leave the government, joining Michael Heseltine and Nigel Lawson on the ‘back benches’ of the Commons but, like them, he would leave on his own terms.

Howe resigned on 1 November, but it was not until a fortnight later, on 13 November 1990, that he stood up from the back benches to make a famous resignation statement which was designed to answer Number Ten’s narrative that he had gone over nothing much at all. Howe had written a carefully worded letter of resignation in which he criticised the Prime Minister’s overall handling of UK relations with the European Community. After largely successful attempts by Number Ten to claim that there were differences only of style, rather than substance, in Howe’s disagreement with Thatcher on Europe, Howe, therefore, chose to send a powerful message of dissent. To a packed chamber, he revealed that Lawson and he had threatened to resign together the previous year at the summit in Madrid. He attacked Thatcher for running increasingly serious risks for the future of the country and criticised her for undermining the policies on EMU proposed by her own Chancellor and Governor of the Bank of England. He also accused her of sending her ministers to negotiate in Brussels without the means to do so. He used a rather strange cricketing simile about captains and broken bats, which would have meant something to most MPs, but very little to those listening on the other side of the channel concerned with British negotiations on EMU in Europe:

Lord Geoffrey Howe (cropped).jpg

It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.

Curiously and perhaps ironically, it is this part of his statement which is best remembered and most replayed. However, his dispute with Thatcher was over matters of substance more than ones of style; this was no game, not even one of cricket. He was advocating a move back towards a more centrist position on constitutional and administrative issues, such as taxation and European integration.

Geoffrey Howe (pictured more recently, above right) represented a kind of moderate ‘Whiggery’ in the party, being educated, lawyerly, and diligent; while direct, he was conciliatory and collegiate in style. He calmly ended his speech with an appeal to his remaining cabinet colleagues:

The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long.

Television cameras had just been allowed into the Commons so that, across the country as well as across the channel, via satellite channels, people could watch Howe, with Nigel Lawson nodding beside him, Michael Heseltine’s icy-calm demeanour and the white-faced reaction of the Prime Minister herself. The next day Heseltine announced that he would stand against her for the party leadership. She told The Times that he was a socialist at heart, someone whose philosophy at its extreme end had just been defeated in the USSR. She would defeat him. But the balloting system for a leadership contest meant that she would not just have to get a majority of votes among Tory MPs, but that she had to get a clear margin of fifteen per cent in total votes cast. At a summit in Paris, she found that she had failed to clear the second hurdle by just four votes. There would be a second ballot and she announced to a surprised John Sargent of the BBC, waiting at the bottom of the steps outside the summit, that she would fight on. It was a pure pantomime moment, seen live on TV, with viewers shouting “she’s behind you” at their TV sets as she came down the steps behind him. Then she went back up the steps to rejoin the other leaders at the ballet. While she watched the dancing in front of her, Tory MPs were dancing through Westminster either in rage or delight. Her support softened as the night went on, with many key Thatcherites believing she was finished and that Heseltine would beat her in the second ballot, tearing the party in two. It would be better for her to withdraw and let someone else fight him off.

Had she been in London throughout the crisis and able to summon her cabinet together to back her, she might have survived. But by the time she got back, even Maggie couldn’t pull it off. She decided to see her ministers one-by-one in her Commons office. Douglas Hurd and John Major had already given her their reluctant agreement to nominate her for the second round, but the message from most of her ministers was surprisingly uniform. They would give her their personal backing if she was determined to fight on but felt that she would lose to Heseltine. In reality, of course, she had lost them, but none of them wanted to join Heseltine in posterity as a co-assassin. Her MPs were too scared of the electoral vengeance to be wreaked after the poll tax. Only a few on the ultra-right, mostly outside the cabinet, were sincerely urging her to continue the struggle. One of them was Alan Clark, the diarist, who told her to fight on at all costs. She later commented, …

Unfortunately, he went on to argue that… it was better to go down in a blaze of glorious defeat than to go gentle into that good night. Since I had no particular fondness for Wagnerian endings, this lifted my spirits only briefly.

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She returned to Downing Street, where she announced to her cabinet secretary at 7.30 the next morning that she had decided to resign. She held an uncomfortable cabinet meeting with those she believed to have betrayed her, saw the Queen, phoned other world leaders and then finished with one final Commons performance, vigorously defending her record. When she left Downing Street for the last time, in tears, she already knew that she was replaced as Prime Minister by John Major rather than Michael Heseltine. She had rallied support by phone for him among her closest supporters, who had felt that he had not quite been supportive enough. Unlike in the first ballot, a candidate only required a simple majority of Conservative MPs to win, in this case, 186  out of 372 MPs. The ballot was held on the afternoon of 27 November; although Major fell two votes short of the required winning total, he polled far enough ahead of both Douglas Hurd and Michael Heseltine to secure immediate concessions from both of them. With no remaining challengers, Major was formally named Leader of the Conservative Party that evening and was duly appointed Prime Minister the following day. Although Thatcher herself had her private doubts about him, the public transition was complete, and the most nation-changing premiership of modern British history was at its end. Andrew Marr has conveyed something of the drama of this ‘final act’ in her political career:

She had conducted her premiership with a sense of vivid and immediate self-dramatisation, the heroine of peace and war, figthing pitched battles in coalfields and on the streets, word-punching her way through triumphal conferences, haranguing rival leaders, always with a sense that history was being freshly minted, day by day. This is why so many insults levelled at her tended to twist into unintended compliments – ‘the Iron lady’, ‘She who must be obeyed’, ‘the Blessed Margaret’ and even ‘the Great She-Elephant’… She had no sense of her own limits. The world was made anew. Her fall lived up in every way to her record. When a great leader topples, poetry requires that her personal failings bring her down. The story insists that it must be more than… weariness or age. And this story’s ending lives up to its earlier scenes.  

Major (minor), Return to Baghdad & the Magic Moment in Maastricht:

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John Major’s seven years in office make him the third longest-serving peacetime prime minister of modern times, behind Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, but he often gets overlooked, probably because he came in the middle of what is increasingly referred to as the Thatcher-Blair era in British politics. To Mrs Thatcher and others in the cabinet and Commons, he appeared to be a bland, friendly, loyal Thatcherite. He was elected because of who he was not, not a posh, old-school Tory like Douglas Hurd, nor a rich, charismatic charmer like Michael Heseltine. His father was a music-hall ‘artiste’ with a long stage career, Tom Ball: ‘Major’ was his stage name. When John Major was born, his father was already an old man, pursuing a second career as a maker of garden ornaments. He lost everything in a business deal that went wrong and the family had to move from their comfortable suburban house into a crowded flat in Brixton.

John Major-Ball was sent to grammar school, but was a poor student and left at sixteen. He worked as a clerk, made garden gnomes with his brother, looked after his mother and endured a ‘degrading’ period of unemployment before eventually pursuing a career as a banker and becoming a Conservative councillor. His politics were formed by his experiences of the inner-city and he was on the anti-Powellite, moderate wing of the party. He was selected for the Cambridgeshire seat of Huntingdon and entered Parliament in 1979, in the election which brought Thatcher to power. After the 1987 election, Thatcher promoted him to the cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, from where he became Foreign Secretary and then Chancellor. To everyone outside the Tory Party, Major was a blank canvas. At forty-seven, he was the youngest Prime Minister of the century and the least known, certainly in the post-war period. The Conservatives were content with this choice, having grown tired of amateur dramatics. He was seen by many as the bloke from next door who would lead them towards easier times. He talked of building a society of opportunity and compassion, and for privileges once available to ‘the few’ to be spread to ‘the many’. But he had little time to plan his own agenda. There were innumerable crises to be dealt with. He quickly killed off the poll tax and replaced it with a new council tax, which bore a striking resemblance to the ‘banded’ system previously proposed as an alternative.

One of the first things that John Major did as PM was to meet the elder President Bush and promise him full support through the Gulf War. When John Simpson returned to Baghdad in mid-December 1990, the atmosphere had changed as war loomed. Mr Hattem, the BBC’s driver, was much more subservient to their minders, and wouldn’t take the crew anywhere without consulting them. Once they missed an entire story as a result. Saddam Hussein had ordered the release of all the foreign hostages, a decision of considerable importance to the Coalition forces headed by the United States; public opinion at home would have been much more reluctant to support the air war if it had seemed likely that ordinary Americans, Britons and other Europeans would be killed by the bombs and missiles. The man who persuaded Saddam Hussein to give up one of his best cards in an otherwise rather empty hand was Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. According to Simpson, contrary to some Western stereotypes of him, he was always instinctively a man of peace and compromise. Apparently, he told Saddam that if he let the hostages go, this would weaken the moral argument of the US. It turned out to be a tactical mistake, of course, but Arafat had assumed that Saddam had been genuine when, early on in the crisis, he had offered to withdraw from Kuwait if Israel agreed to pull out of the West Bank. He had publicly come out in support of Iraq and had settled in Baghdad for the duration of the crisis. In an interview just before Christmas, he told Simpson that he was certain there would be no war:

YA: “… I can tell you that there will be not be a war. I promise it: you will see. Something will happen: there will be an agreement. You must not think that President Bush is so foolish. You must not think that the Arab brothers are so foolish. War is a terrible thing. Nobody wants it. President Bush will compromise.

At that stage, it looked as if Arafat might well be right about a deal being made. Bush was starting to talk about going the extra mile for peace, and the Iraqi press was announcing a major diplomatic victory for Saddam Hussein. As for the threat of terrorist attacks from Palestinian extremists elsewhere in the Middle East, the PLO had far more control over them in those days, and Arafat had shown that he could be ferocious in curbing it if he chose to do so. By the third week in December, Simpson was getting discreet visits from a very senior figure in the Iraqi régime, whom he nicknamed ‘Bertie’ and who persuaded him that he should go public on Saddam Hussein’s determination not to withdraw from Kuwait before the deadline imposed by the United Nations. Like the US and UK governments, Simpson was inclined to think that Iraq would pull back at the last-minute. ‘Bertie’ was absolutely certain that this wouldn’t happen, and he was right. This was what Simpson told BBC Radio 4 over their line from London about Saddam’s intentions, on 2 January 1991:

‘People who have seen him in the past day or so have told me that he is determined to stand and fight. He told one visiter that if he pulled his forces back now, there would be an uprising against him in the army and he might not be able to cope with it. It feels it’s essential to his own survival in power to face a war: he’ll certainly do it.

Simpson continued to press the same line even when James Baker, the US Secretary of State was due to meet the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, in Geneva, and ITN reported that Aziz was bringing with him an offer of conditional withdrawal. In the event, he brought no such thing, and the meeting broke up without any possibility of a diplomatic settlement. On 13 January, ‘Bertie’ told him that Saddam had said that Iraq would only have to face two waves of air-strikes and that Baghdad would be so destroyed and loss of life would be so great that international opinion would force the US, UK and France to stop, resulting in a diplomatic victory for him. Asked by Simpson whether Saddam himself might be killed in the strikes, ‘Bertie’ said that Saddam’s ‘bunker’ was impenetrable and that he will survive, even if tens of thousands die. On 11 January, they discovered exactly where the bunker was. Saddam Hussein was due to appear at an international Islamic conference at the government centre immediately opposite the Al-Rashid Hotel, where Simpson and the BBC crew were staying, along with many other international film crews and newspaper journalists. They had stationed camera crews at every entrance to the conference centre, in the hope of getting something more than the usual official pictures of the Iraqi president. Simpson himself sat in the hotel, watching the live coverage of the event on Iraqi television:

On cue the great man appeared on stage, holding out his arm in the affected way which is his trade-mark, while the audience went wild. I looked forward to the pictures the camera crews must be getting. But when they came back, each of them said that Saddam hadn’t come past him. That convinced me. We had long heard rumours that his command complex was based under our hotel: this indicated that there were underground roads and passages from the complex to enable him to reach the various important government buildings in the area. … So there we were, living and working a hundred feet or so above Saddam Hussein’s head. We were his protection. And if he knew it, the Coalition forces did as well: the European company which had built much of the bunker had handed over all the blueprints to them. The outlook wasn’t good. The American embassy in Baghdad, before it closed down, had warned everyone who stayed that they could expect to be killed in the bombing. President Bush himself had phoned the editors of the big American organisations represented in Baghdad and begged them to pull out. … the big organisations (with the exception of CNN) obliged.

I have written elsewhere about John Simpson’s own motives for staying and his experiences and accounts of the bombing of the city which began less than a week later, on 17 January, before the BBC crew were forced to leave. Suffice it here to quote from his interview some months later (10.5.91) with Sue Lawley, the then presenter of the popular and long-running BBC Radio programme, Desert Island Discs:

SL: But these things – I mean, it’s not really enough to risk your life to write a book, is it?

(Pause)

JS: I suppose it’s just that I’m a bit of a ‘chancer’, that’s all.

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The Gulf War was the first major conflict since the Second World War in which it was essential for the multi-national allied forces not to have large-scale casualties. It ended when President Bush began to get nervous about the pictures of death and destruction which were coming in from the desert. Public opinion in the United States did not want another Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia, with large-scale carpet-bombing of civilian populations, pictures of massacres and of American GIs being flown home in body bags. In Britain too, people wanted a limited war fought to expel the Iraqi forces from Kuwait, but they didn’t want a huge body-count. They didn’t get one either, though there were some significant losses among the British forces. The Gulf War achieved its limited objectives, freeing Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion and resulting in the immolation the Iraqi army’s Republican Guard. It generated nothing like the controversy of the later Iraq War. It was widely seen as a necessary act of international retribution against a particularly horrible dictator. The bigger problem for the country itself was the quarter of a million deaths which occurred after the war, caused by UN Sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s reaction to them, especially his vengeful acts of genocide against the Iraqi Kurds in the north of the country.

After the controversies and alarms of the Thatcher years, foreign affairs generated less heat, except for the great issue of European federalism. John Major had to turn straight away to confront Jacques Delors’ agenda, which was threatening to divide the Tory Party. If ever a place was well-chosen for debating the end of a Europe of independent nation-states, it was Maastricht in Holland, nestled so close to the German and Belgian borders it is almost nationless. Here the great showdown of the winter of 1991 took place. A new treaty was to be agreed and it was one which made the federal project even more explicit. There was to be fast progress to a single currency. Much of the foreign policy, defence policy and home affairs were to come under the ultimate authority of the EU. A ‘social chapter’ would oblige Britain to accept the more expensive work guarantees of the continent and surrender some of the trade union reforms brought in under Thatcher. For a country with a weak industrial base whose economy partly depended on undercutting her continental rivals, all this would be grave. For a Conservative Party which had applauded Lady Thatcher’s defiant Bruges speech, it was almost a declaration of war, in which Europe’s ‘federal’ destiny had been made more explicit.

John Major was trying to be practical. He refused to rule out the possibility of a single currency for all time, believing it would probably happen one day since it had obvious business and trading advantages. But now was too soon, partly because it would make life harder for the central European countries being freed from communism to join the EU. In his memoirs, he protests that he was accused of dithering, procrastination, lacking leadership and conviction. Yet at Maastricht, he managed, during genuinely tense negotiations, to keep Britain out of most of what was being demanded of the member states. He and his Chancellor, Norman Lamont, negotiated a special British opt-out from monetary union and managed to have the social chapter excluded from the treaty altogether. Major kept haggling late and on every detail, wearing out his fellow leaders with more politeness but as much determination as Thatcher ever had.  For a man with a weak hand, under fire from his own side at home, it was quite a feat. Major returned to plaudits in the newspapers using the remark of an aide that it was ‘game, set and match’ to Britain.

Briefly, Major was a hero. He described his reception by the Tory Party in the Commons as the modern equivalent of a Roman triumph, quite something for the boy from Brixton. Soon after this, he called the election most observers thought he must lose. The most immediate worries had been economic, as the hangover caused by the Lawson boom began to throb. Inflation rose towards double figures, interest rates were at fourteen per cent and unemployment was heading towards two million again. Moreover, a serious white-collar recession was beginning to hit Britain, particularly the south, where house prices would fall by a quarter. An estimated 1.8 million people found that their homes were worth less than the money they had borrowed to buy them in the eighties when credit had been easy to obtain. Now they were in what became known as ‘negative equity’ and were often unable to sell their properties. During 1991 alone, more than seventy-five thousand families had their homes repossessed. The economy was so badly awry, the pain of the poll tax so fresh, Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party now so efficiently organised, that the Tory years seemed sure to be ending. Things turned out differently. Lamont’s pre-election had helped since it proposed to cut the bottom rate of income tax by five pence in the pound, which would help people on lower incomes, badly wrong-footing Labour.

With a party as full of anger and resentment as the Conservative Party behind him, he had little chance of succeeding as prime minister.  He was a throwback to an older kind of conservatism, middle-of-the-road, not too noisy, lacking in any particular conviction except that the Conservative Party was the natural governing party of Britain. The country had indeed been governed by Conservatives like Major for most of the twentieth century, and people were slow to understand how ideological the party had become under Thatcher. John Major shared none of her deepest views. He gambled that even if the backbenchers discovered his lack of right-wing conviction, the voters of Britain who traditionally dislike extremism and ideology would give him their backing. In the eyes of the British press, Major was the council-school boy, the anorak, the ‘swot’, who had ended up in Whitehall. He seemed to fit into a recognisable niche within the dreary, peculiarly English system of snobbery and was looked down on accordingly. In addition, many in the Conservative Party resented the fact that Mrs Thatcher had been overthrown, and would have taken it out on anyone who succeeded her.

Major lacked her convictions, certainly. For the many, this was a relief. These convictions, brandished like sticks, were what made her so unpopular in the country as a whole; and if she had led the party into the 1992 election she would have lost it. No one would have blamed Major if he had led the Tories to defeat in the 1992 election, which he called for April.

(to be continued…)

 

Britain and the World, 1984-89: From local difficulties to global conflicts.   Leave a comment

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The ‘Iron Lady’ at the peak of her powers, with tank and flag, in 1986.

The Brighton Bombing:

During the 1984 Conservative Conference, an IRA bomb partly demolished the Grand Hotel in Brighton, almost killing the Prime Minister and a number of her cabinet. The action was intended as a response to Mrs Thatcher’s hard-line at the time of the 1981 Hunger Strike at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. The plot had been to assassinate her and the whole of the cabinet in order to plunge the country into political chaos, resulting in withdrawal from Northern Ireland. When the bomb went off at 2.50 a.m., Margaret Thatcher was working on official papers, having just finished her conference speech. The blast scattered broken glass on her bedroom carpet and filled her mouth with dust. She soon learned that the bomb had killed the wife of cabinet minister John Wakeham, he himself narrowly escaping; killed the Tory MP Anthony Berry and had badly injured Norman Tebbit, paralysing his wife. After less than an hour’s fitful sleep, she rewrote her speech and told the stunned conference that they had witnessed an attempt to cripple the government, commenting that…

… the fact that we are gathered here now, shocked but composed and determined, is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.

The final death toll from Brighton was five dead and several more seriously injured, but its consequences for British politics, which could have been momentous, turned out to be minimal. If the IRA could not shake her, could anything else?

The Gorbachevs in London:

In November 1984, Mikhail Gorbachev arrived at the VIP terminal at Heathrow airport, together with his wife, Raisa. The British had spotted him first, in the summer of that year, if not earlier. He was a lawyer by training, which he had done at the end of the Stalin period. So, while he accepted there were rules to be obeyed, he also knew that they were only really there to be bent. He and Raisa did a great deal in their few days in London, but they did not perform the obligatory ceremony of laying a wreath on Marx’s tomb in Highgate Cemetery. Instead, they paid impromptu visits to Westminster Abbey and Number Ten Downing Street. The Foreign Office arranged a formal lunch for the Gorbachev at Hampton Court Palace, to which they invited a couple of hundred worthies, including BBC journalist John Simpson. He was seated next to a man from Moscow who was to become Gorbachev’s most senior advisors. Simpson asked him whether Gorbachev would really be able to make a difference to the Soviet Union. The Russian replied:

“He will have to,” he said. I noticed he didn’t trouble to question my assumption that Gorbachev would get the top job.

“Why?”

“Because a great deal has to be done. Much, much, more, I think, than you in the West realize.”

The Thatcher Revolution at Home – “Don’t tell Sid!”:

If Labour had been accused of creating a giant state sector whose employees depended on high public spending and could, therefore, be expected to become loyal Labour voting-fodder, then the Tories were intent on creating a property-owning democracy. The despair of Labour politicians as they watched it working was obvious. By the end of the 1980s, there was a large and immovable private sector in Britain of share-owners and home-owners, probably working in private companies, SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and increasingly un-unionised. The proportion of adults holding shares rose from seven per cent to twenty-five per cent during Thatcher’s years in power. Thanks to the ‘right to buy’ policy for council tenants, more than a million families purchased the hoses they lived in, repainting and refurbishing them and then watching their value shoot up, particularly as they had been sold them at a discount of between a third and a half of market value. The proportion of owner-occupied homes rose from fifty-five per cent in 1979 to sixty-seven per cent in 1989. In real terms, total personal wealth rose by eighty per cent in the eighties.

Looking below the surface, however, the story becomes more complex. Of the huge rise in wealth, relatively little was accounted for by shares. The increase in earnings and the house-price boom were much more important. The boom in shareholdings was fuelled by the British love of a bargain than by any deeper change in the culture. There was always a potential conflict between the government’s need to raise revenue and it hopes of spreading share ownership. In the early eighties, ministers erred on the side of the latter. The breakthrough privatization was that of fifty-two per cent of British Telecom in November 1984, which raised an unprecedented 3.9 billion. It was the first to be accompanied by a ‘ballyhoo’ of television and press advertising and was easily oversubscribed. In the event, two million people, or five per cent of the adult population bought ‘BT’ shares, almost doubling the total number of shareholders in a single day. After this came British Gas, as natural gas fields had been supplying Britain from the North Sea since the late sixties, pumping ashore at Yarmouth and Hull, replacing the coal-produced system. With its national pipe network and showrooms, natural gas had become the country’s favourite source of domestic energy and was, therefore, a straightforward monopoly. The government prepared for the sale with another TV campaign featuring a fictitious neighbour who had to be kept in the ‘dark’ about the bargain sale – “Don’t tell Sid!” This raised 5.4 billion, the biggest single privatization.

With the equally bargain-price shares offered to members of building societies when they de-mutualised and turned into banks, Britain developed a class of one-off shareholders, ‘kitchen capitalists’. They soon sold off their shares at a profit, few of them developing into long-term stock market investors, as had been hoped. Those who kept their shares did not go on to buy more, and rarely traded the ones they had acquired as a result of the privatizations, demutualisations and former employment options. The long-term failure to nurture a deeply rooted shareholding democracy has added to the contemporary criticism that public assets were being sold off too cheaply. The then Chancellor, Nigel Lawson later admitted that wider share ownership was an important policy objective and we were prepared to pay a price for it. The failure, ultimately, to achieve that objective showed that there were limits to the Thatcher Revolution. The most successful privatizations were the ones where the company was pushed into full competition, as with British Airways, Rolls-Royce and British Aerospace. The utilities – gas, electricity, water – were always different, because they were natural monopolies. Yet without competition, where would the efficiency gains come from? This question was left as a rhetorical one, unanswered until decades later. The water and electricity companies were split up in order to create regional monopolies, with power generation split into two mega-companies, National Power and Powergen. In reality, few people outside the ‘Westminster village’ cared who owned the companies they depended on, so long as the service was acceptable. Britain was becoming a far less ideological country and a more aggressively consumerist one.

Heseltine and the Helicopters:

In the winter of 1984-85, the great Westland Helicopter crisis that broke over the Thatcher government was a battle between ministers about whether a European consortium of aerospace manufacturers or and American defence company, working with an Italian firm should take over a struggling West Country helicopter maker. While this was a government that claimed to refuse to micro-manage industry, yet the fight about the future of the Yeovil manufacturer cost two cabinet ministers’ jobs and pitted Thatcher against the only other member of her cabinet with real charisma, Nigel Heseltine. The small storm of Westland gave early notice of the weaknesses that would eventually destroy the Thatcher government, though not for another five years.

One weakness was the divide throughout the Tory Party over Britain’s place in the world. By the 1980s, helicopters were no longer a marginal defence issue. They would become crucial to Britain’s capabilities, the new army mule for hauling artillery over mountains and across stretches of water. United Technologies, the US company whose Sikorsky subsidiary built the Black Hawk helicopter, wanted to gain control over part of Britain’s defence industry. Alexander Haig, Reagan’s Secretary of State who had been so helpful to Mrs Thatcher during the Falklands Campaign was now back at his old company and ‘called in his markers’ for the American bid. Adopting a position of outward neutrality would probably have favoured it anyway as a further strengthening of the Special Relationship between the UK and the US. But on the other side, supporting the European consortium, were those who felt that the EC had to be able to stand alone in defence technology. Michael Heseltine and his business allies thought this was vital to protect jobs in the cutting-edge science-based industries. The US must not be allowed to dictate prices and terms to Europe. So the conflict was concerned with whether Britain stood first with the US or with the EC. It was a question which would continue to grow in importance throughout the eighties until, in the nineties, it tore the Conservatives apart.

The second weakness exposed by the Westland Affair was the Thatcher style of government, which was more presidential and more disdainful of the role of cabinet ministers than any previous government. The Prime Minister was conducting more and more business in small committees or bilaterally, with one minister at a time, ensuring her near absolute predominance. She gathered a small clique of trusted advisors around her. Just before her fall, Nigel Lawson concluded that she was taking her personal economic advisor, Sir Alan Walters, more seriously than she was taking him, her next door neighbour in No 11, her Chancellor of the Exchequer. She used her beloved press officer, Bernard Ingham to cut down to size any ministers she had fallen out with, briefing against them and using the anonymous lobby system for Westminster journalists to spread the message.  In his memoirs, Ingham angrily defends himself against accusations of the improper briefing of the press, yet there are too many witnesses who found the Thatcher style more like that of the court of Elizabeth Tudor than that of a traditional cabinet, a place which demanded absolute loyalty and was infested with sycophantic favourites. In the mid-eighties, this was a new way of doing the business of government and to ministers on the receiving end, it was freshly humiliating.

But if there was one minister unlikely to take such treatment for long, it was Michael Heseltine (pictured below at a Conservative Party Conference). He was the only serious rival to Thatcher as the ‘darling of the party’ and media star, handsome, glamorous, rich and an excellent public speaker. He was said by his friend, fellow Tory MP and biographer, Julian Critchley, to have mapped out his future career on the back of an envelope, while still a student at Oxford, decade by decade, running through making his fortune, marrying well, entering Parliament and then, 1990s, Prime Minister. Though Heseltine commented that he could not remember doing this, it was in character. As a young man, he had flung himself into the characteristic sixties businesses of property investment and magazine publishing. A passionate anti-socialist, he had won a reputation for hot-headedness since once picking up the Mace, the symbol of Parliamentary authority, during a Commons debate about steel nationalization, and waving it at the Labour benches in such a violent manner as to earn himself the nickname ‘Tarzan’. His speeches to Tory Party conferences were full of blond hair-tossing, hilarious invective and dramatic gestures. In her memoirs, Thatcher portrayed Heseltine as a vain, ambitious man who flouted cabinet responsibility. The Westland crisis was, in her view, simply about his psychological flaws. However, they agreed about much, but was a more committed anti-racialist than she was and more deeply in favour of the EC, and she always regarded him as a serious and dangerous rival.

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The two bigger beasts of the Tory Party in the eighties went to war on behalf of the two rival bidders for Westland. She was livid that he was using his position as Defence Secretary to warn the company’s shareholders about the dangers of going with the Americans, potentially shutting out European business. She thought he was tipping the scales against Sikorsky, despite Westland’s preference for them. Certainly, Heseltine repeatedly made it clear that the Ministry of Defence would not be buying their Black Hawk helicopter and did much to rally the European consortium. Thatcher, meanwhile, was deploying the public line that she was only interested in what was best for the shareholders while trying to make sure the Americans were kept in the race, ahead of the Europeans. Eventually, she sought advice from the government law officers about whether Heseltine had been behaving properly. A private reply was leaked in order to weaken his case. Furious about this wholly inappropriate act which he suspected was the responsibility of Thatcher and Ingham, Heseltine demanded a full inquiry. During a meeting of the cabinet, she counter-attacked, trying to rein him in by ordering that all future statements on Westland must be cleared first by Number Ten. Hearing this attempt to gag him, Heseltine calmly got up from the cabinet table, announced that he must leave the government, walked into the street and told a solitary reporter that he had just resigned.

The question of exactly who had leaked the Attorney General’s legal advice in a misleadingly selective way to scupper the European bid then became critical. The leaking of private advice broke the rules of Whitehall confidentiality, fairness and collective government. The instrument of the leak was a comparatively junior civil servant to the Trade Secretary, Leon Brittan. But it was unclear as to who had told Colette Brown to do this, though many assumed it was her boss, Bernard Ingham. He denied it, and Mrs Thatcher also denied any knowledge of the leak. After dramatic Commons exchanges during which she was accused of lying to the House, she pulled through, while Leon Brittan was made a scapegoat. Some of Thatcher’s greatest business supporters such as Rupert Murdoch then weighed in on the side of the American bid. Eventually, amid accusations of arm-twisting and dirty tricks, the company went to Sikorsky and the storm subsided. But it had revealed the costs of the Thatcher style of government. Getting the better of foreign dictators and militant trade union leaders was one thing, but behaving the same way with senior members of the cabinet and the Tory Party was quite another. Heseltine wrote later:

I saw many good people broken by the Downing Street machine. I had observed the techniques of character assassination; the drip, drip, drip, of carefully planted, unattributable stories that were fed into the public domain, as colleagues became marked as somehow “semi-detached” or “not one of us”.

‘Shadowing’ the Deutschmark & ‘Diva’ Diplomacy:

There were also debates and rows about economic policy in relation to the EC. The Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, wanted to replace the old, rather wobbly system of controlling the money supply targets, the Medium Term Financial Strategy, with a new stratagem – tying the pound to the German mark in the European Exchange Rate System (ERM). This was an admission of failure; the older system of measuring money was useless and in the world of global fast money. Linking the pound to the Deutschmark was an alternative, with Britain subcontracting her anti-inflation policy to the more successful and harder-faced disciplinarians of the West German Central Bank. Lawson was keen on this alternative ‘shadowing’ method; in effect, he was looking for somewhere firm to plant down policy in the context of the new global financial free-for-all. Thatcher disagreed, arguing that currencies should be allowed to float freely, but at the time little of this debate was known beyond the specialist financial world.

Other ‘Europe’- related debates were conducted more openly in general political life. The mid-eighties were years of Thatcherite drift over Europe. Jacques Delors, later her great enemy as President of the European Commission, had begun his grand plan for the next stages of ‘the union’. Thatcher knew that the ERM was intended one day to lead to a single European currency, part of Delors’ plan for a freshly buttressed European state. Lawson ignored her objections and shadowed the Deutschmark anyway. But when the cost of her Chancellor’s policy became excessive, she ordered him to stop which, under protest, he did. However, the Single European Act, which smashed down thousands of national laws preventing free trade inside the EC, promised free movement of goods, capital, services and people, and presaging the single currency, was passed with her enthusiastic support. She rejected the sceptics’ view that when the continental leadership talked of an economic and political union, they really meant it.

Back in the mid-eighties, personal relationships mattered as much in modern diplomacy as they had in Renaissance courts, and the Thatcher-Gorbachev courtship engaged her imagination and human interest. She was becoming the closest ally of Ronald Reagan, in another international relationship which was of huge emotional and political significance to her. In these years she became an ‘international diva’ of conservative politics, feted by crowds from Russia and China to New York. Her wardrobe, coded depending on where an outfit had been first worn, told its own story: Paris Opera, Washington Pink, Reagan Navy, Toronto Turquoise, Tokyo Blue, Kremlin Silver, Peking Black. Meanwhile, she was negotiating the hard detail of Hong Kong’s transitional status before it was handed over to Communist China in 1997. She got a torrid time at Commonwealth conferences for her opposition to sanctions against the apartheid régime in South Africa. At home, the problem of persistently high unemployment was nagging away, though it started to fall from the summer of 1986 seemed to fall.

The Bombing of Libya and ‘BBC Bias’:

Then there was the highly unpopular use of British airbases for President Reagan’s attack on Libya in 1986. This provoked a controversy, not for the first time, between the BBC and the Thatcher government. The PM’s supporters on the right of the Tory Party had long been urging her to privatize the BBC and she herself appeared to believe that it was biased against her government; by which she meant that it was too independent. She still remembered the irritation she felt at some of the phrases its leading broadcasters had used back in the Falklands War: if we are to believe the British version, etc.  Her view was that as the British Broadcasting Corporation, a public service broadcaster supported by the television license fee, it should give the British government’s view without questioning it. Yet it was perfectly obvious that the reason the BBC was so respected both in Britain and abroad was that it was genuinely independent of the British government. The BBC was legally obliged by its Charter to remain independent of party political control. Lord Reith, its first Director-General, had successfully resisted Churchill’s attempt to take over its radio service for government propaganda during the General Strike of 1926. It was one of the few great organs of state which Margaret Thatcher was not able to dominate in some way, a constitutional reality which made her visibly restless on occasions.

Because the American aircraft which bombed Libya took off from bases in Britain, that made it a British issue. The pretext for the attack was a terrorist attack on a Berlin nightclub used by American servicemen, but far from being the work of Libyan agents, it proved to have been carried out by a group linked to the Syrian government. There was a good deal of public disquiet about it, especially since it was strongly suspected that the Reagan administration was primarily bombing Libya to teach bigger and more formidable countries, chiefly Iran, a lesson. Libya was a feeble, though intermittently nasty little dictatorship which could never organise significant acts of state terrorism. The real battle was a propaganda one. Colonel Gaddafi (pictured below in 1979) claimed that his daughter had been killed in the raid, and showed her body to the journalists in Tripoli at the time. It wasn’t until some time later that it became clear that he had adopted the little girl as she lay dying from her injuries. But whoever’s daughter she was, she was certainly killed by the American bombing.

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The British government was rather rattled by the hostility which sections of the public were starting to show over the bombing; and since, at the times of crisis, people tend to turn to the BBC for their information, some senior ministers felt that this public opposition was the fault of the BBC and wanted it to be taught a lesson. The chairman of the Conservative Party, Norman Tebbit, announced that he would be investigating the BBC’s coverage of the raid. The BBC allowed itself to seem rattled by the threats he and his party made, which made him feel justified in his approach. John Simpson, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor recalled sitting with a few journalists in the canteen at the Television Centre when the tannoy went:

‘PBX. Calling Mr John Simpson.’

I hurried over to the phone. The deputy editor of television news was on the other end.

“We’ve just had Tebbit’s report,” he said. “It’s serious. The editor would be grateful if you could get up here.”

I finished my fish and went up. A small group of worried-looking people were sitting round in the editor’s office. The editor handed me a copy of the document Tebbit and his researchers at Conservative Central Office had compiled. I looked through it rather nervously, anxious to see what it had to say about my own reporting of the attack. It made a few neutral comments, then one which was rather complimentary; that was all.

“That’s all OK,” I blurted out, voicing my own relief. Nothing much there.” 

The editor turned to me. I could see a faint ray of hope was glimmering for the first time.

“You think so?”

I realised that I had been speaking purely for myself. But it seemed unkind and unreasonable to destroy his only cause for optimism. He must have felt that his career was on the line.

“Oh sure, it’s full of loopholes. Just go through it carefully and you’ll find them all,” I said.

I hadn’t read it carefully enough to know if that were true, but I have never yet read a long document that you couldn’t pick holes in.

Chris Cramer, a tough character who was the news editor at the time… agreed. Cramer and I were both affronted by the idea that in a free society the government should presume to dictate to the broadcasters and try to make them report only what the government wanted. Maybe we were both chancers too.

“John’s right,” he said. “We should go through this with a fine-tooth comb. We’ll find lots of things wrong with it.”

Which is what happened. We divided the Conservative Central Office document up between us, and spent the next couple of days going through it point by point. The document compared the BBC’s coverage of the raid unfavourably with ITN’s, and tried to make the case that the BBC had been deliberately biased. Some of the individual points it made were reasonable enough: the news presenter on the night of the bombing had added various inaccuracies to the sub-editors’ scripts. (Soon afterwards she left the BBC.)

But it was silly to try to pretend that there was some underlying bias. I have never yet found a senior Conservative who really believed that…  

It hadn’t occurred to Norman Tebbit that the BBC would stand its ground since in the past it had fallen over itself with nervousness at the mere suggestion that the government of the day was upset with it. When it issued its response there was a big wave of public support for the BBC, partly because Kate Adie had established herself in the public eye as a brave, serious reporter, staying in Tripoli when the bombs were falling. Previously, women reporters had tended to be given social affairs to report on. Here was a woman who had become a war correspondent; something unprecedented on British television at that time, though there have been many equally brave successors since. But there was also public support for the BBC because, for all its failings, the BBC was considered to be as British an institution as any other in the country, and ninety per cent of the population had some contact with it each week in the pre-internet era. Norman Tebbit had failed to realise the British people did not like party political attacks on ‘Auntie’. An opinion poll taken shortly afterwards indicated that Conservative voters supported ‘the Beeb’ on almost the same scale as voters for other parties. Thatcher, aware that she would have to call a general election within the next year or so, quickly distanced herself from her erstwhile lieutenant’s campaign, leading to the first rift between the two of them. On the night she won the 1987 election, Simpson tried to interview her by the railings of St John’s, Smith Square, next to Conservative Central Office, amid rabid Young Conservatives chanting calls for the privatisation of the BBC:

Transcript of interview with Prime Minister, 18.6.87:

Speakers: Rt Hon Margaret Thatcher, PC MP (non-staff), John Simpson (contract)…

JS: The crowd here seem to want you to privatise the BBC. Are you planning to do that?

MT: Well, I think… Well, you know, I must really go and speak to them.

Of course, she never again considered doing so, even if she had been temporarily persuaded by Tebbit’s arguments. She knew what people would stand for, and what they wouldn’t; it was when this instinct finally deserted her that her decline and fall began.

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The ‘Poll Tax’ and the Peasants:

After the election, a wider dilemma emerged right across domestic policy, from the inner cities to hospitals, schools to police forces. Thatcher believed that government should set the rules, deliver sound money and then stand back and let other people get on with providing services. In practice, she often behaved differently, always more pragmatic and interventionist than her image suggested. At least, however, the principle was clear. But when it came to the public services there was no similar principle. She did not have the same respect for independent ‘movers and shakers’ in the hospitals, schools and town halls as she had for entrepreneurs and risk takers she admired in business. Before the Thatcher revolution, the Conservatives had been seen, on balance, defenders of local democracy. They had been strongly represented on councils across the country and had been on the receiving end of some of the more thuggish threats from Labour governments intent, for instance, on abolishing grammar schools. The town and county hall Conservatives had seen local representatives on hospital boards and local education authorities as bulwarks against socialist Whitehall. Margaret Thatcher herself had begun her political apprenticeship doing voluntary public work for her father, Alderman Roberts, sitting on various unpaid committees.

Yet in power, Thatcher and her ministers could not trust local government, or any elected and therefore independent bodies at all. Between 1979 and 1994, an astonishing 150 Acts of Parliament were passed removing powers from local authorities and switched to unelected quangos. The first two Thatcher governments transferred power and discretion away from people who had stood openly for election, and towards the subservient agents of Whitehall, often paid-up Tory party members. Despite his apparent love for Liverpool before the Militant takeover, Michael Heseltine attacked the whole of local government with new auditing with new auditing arrangements, curbs on how much tax they could raise, and spending caps as well. In the health service, early attempts to decentralize were rapidly reversed and a vast top-down system of targets and measurements was put in place, driven by a new planning organisation. It cost more and the service, undoubtedly, got worse. Similar centralist power-grabs took place in urban regeneration, where unelected Urban Development Corporations, rather than local councils, were given money to pour into rundown cities. The biggest city councils, most notably the Greater London Council, were simply abolished. Its powers were distributed between local borough councils and an unelected central organisation controlled by Whitehall. By 1990 there were some twelve thousand appointed officials running London compared with just 1,900 elected borough councillors. Housing Corporations took ninety per cent of the funds used by housing associations to build new cheap homes. In the Thatcher years, their staff grew sevenfold and their budgets twenty-fold.

Margaret Thatcher would say the poll tax, the name associated with the tax per head which was the catalyst for the bloody Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, was actually an attempt to save local government. Like schools, hospitals and housing, local councils had been subjected to a barrage of ministers trying to stop them spending money, or raising it, except as Whitehall wished. Since 1945, local government had been spending more, but the amount of money it raised independently still came from a relatively narrow base of people, some fourteen million property-owners. Thatcher had been prodded by Edward Heath into promising to replace this tax, ‘the rates’, as early as 1974, but nobody had come up with a plausible and popular-sounding alternative. She had always disliked the rates system intensely, regarding them as an attack on self-improvement and other Tory values, and in government, the problem nagged away at her. Once, local elections were not national news; they were about who was best suited to run towns and counties, but in the late sixties and seventies they became national news, a regular referendum on the central government. Under Thatcher, the Conservatives lost swathes of local councils, resulting in more Labour-controlled councils which were even more distrusted by the central government, resulting in more powers away from them. The elections became even less relevant, fuelling more protest voting, and it soon became clear to government ministers that more councils were aping Liverpool by pursuing expensive hard-left policies partly because so few of those who voted for them were actually ratepayers themselves, therefore feeling no personal ‘pinch’.

One way of correcting this anomaly would be to make all those who voted for local councils pay towards their cost. This was the origin of the poll tax or community charge as it was officially called, a single flat tax for everybody. It would mean lower bills for many homeowners and make local councils more responsive to their voters. On the other hand, it would introduce a new, regressive tax for twenty million people, with the poorest paying as much as the richest. This broke a principle which stretched back much further back than the post-war ‘consensus’ to at least the 1920s and the replacement of the Poor Law. But Public Assistance or social security as it was now known, was no longer charged or administered locally so that there was some logic in the change to a flat, universal charge. This proposal was sold to the Prime Minister by Kenneth Baker at a seminar at Chequers in 1985, along with the nationalisation of business rates. Nigel Lawson tried to talk the Prime Minister out of it, telling her it would be completely unworkable and politically catastrophic. The tax was discussed at the same cabinet meeting that Michael Heseltine walked out of over the Westland affair. It might have worked if it had been brought in gradually over a whole decade, as was first mooted, or at least four, as was planned at that meeting.

But at the 1987 Tory Conference, intoxicated by the euphoria of the recent third election victory, party members urged Thatcher to bring it in at once. She agreed since there was some urgency resulting from the dramatic increase in property prices in the eighties. Rates, like the subsequent council tax, were based on the relative value of houses across Britain, changing with fashion and home improvement. This meant that, periodically, there had to be a complete revaluation in order to keep the tax working. Yet each revaluation meant higher rates bills for millions of households and businesses, and governments naturally tried to procrastinate over them. In Scotland, however, a different law made this impossible and a rates revaluation had already happened, causing political mayhem. As a result, Scottish ministers begged Thatcher to be allowed the poll tax first, and she also agreed to this. Exemptions were made for the unemployed and low paid, but an attempt, by nervous Tory MPs, to divide the tax into three bands so that it bore some relation to people’s ability to pay was brushed aside despite a huge parliamentary rebellion. When the tax was duly introduced in Scotland, it was met by widespread protest. In England, the estimates of the likely price of the average poll tax kept rising. Panicking ministers produced expensive schemes to cap it, and to create more generous exemptions, undermining the whole point of the new tax. Capping the tax would remove local accountability; the more exemptions there were, the lesser the pressure would be on the councils from their voters. Yet even the PM grew alarmed as she was told that over eighty per cent of voters would be paying more. Yet she pushed ahead with the introduction of the tax, due to take effect in England and Wales on 1st April 1990.

Bruges Bluntness & Madrid Madness:

The poll tax was one of the causes of her downfall in that following year, the other being Europe. This factor began to be potent in 1988, when turned against Jacques Delors’ plans and went to Bruges in Belgium to make what became her definitive speech against the federalist tide which was now openly advancing towards her. The Foreign Office had tried to soften her message, but she had promptly pulled out her pen and written the barbs and thorns back in again. She informed her audience that she had not…

… successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new level of dominance from Brussels.

There was much else besides. Her bluntness much offended continental politicians as well as her own Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe. Next, she reappointed her monetarist economic advisor, Sir Alan Walters, who was outspokenly contemptuous of Lawson’s exchange rate policy. So, she was taking on two big cabinet beasts with great Offices of State at the same time, creating a serious split at the top of government. Then, Jacques Delors, the determined French socialist re-entered the story, with a fleshed-out plan for an economic and monetary union, which would end with the single currency, the euro. To get there, all EU members would need to put their national currencies into the ERM, which would draw them increasingly tightly together, which was just what Lawson and Howe wanted and just what Thatcher did not. Howe and Lawson ganged up, telling her that she must announce that Britain would soon join the ERM, even if she left the question of the single currency to one side for the time being. On the eve of a summit in Madrid where Britain was due to announce its view the two of them visited Thatcher together in private, had a blazing row with her and threatened to resign together if she did not give way. She did, and, for the time being, the crisis abated.

Piper Alpha – The Price of Oil and Who Profited?

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In June 1988, 185 men were burned or blown to death in the North Sea when an oil platform, Piper Alpha, blew up, yet there has been little commemoration of the tragic event over the past thirty years, in popular memorials (as contrasted with earlier coal-mining disasters of a similar scale), political memoirs or the general media. In the case of oil, the great adventure was lived out at the margins of British experience, halfway to Scandinavia, with its wild scenes played out in the bars of Aberdeen and Shetland, far removed from the media in Glasgow, never mind London. Exploration, equipment and production were also largely controlled by American companies. The number of British refineries actually fell in the eighties, the peak decade for oil production, from twenty-one to thirteen, and forty per cent of those were also owned by US-based companies. According to Nigel Lawson, the revenues from oil taxes gave ‘a healthy kick-start’ to the process of cutting the government deficit, though he always argued that the overall impact of North Sea oil was exaggerated, especially by the Scottish Nationalists (SNP). Ireland also benefited greatly from new investment from the United States in the search for new sources of oil and gas in Irish waters from the 1970s, and their exploitation in the eighties. In addition, as a poorer member state of the EU, the Republic gained a disproportionately larger share of the EU budget than the UK as a whole, so that by the end of the decade the Irish economy was expanding rapidly and the long-term pattern of Irish emigration was being reversed. Both British and Irish trade with the EU increased, and Ireland’s economy became less dependent on Britain’s.

Birt, the BBC & Beijing:

Following its own battles with Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit following the bombing of Libya, by the end of the eighties the BBC went on to become the biggest newsgathering organisation in the world and its reputation for accurate, impartial reporting continued to grow around the globe. In 1988, John Birt joined the Corporation as head of news and current affairs, reforming and revitalising that area before going on to become director-general. Under his leadership, there was a five-fold expansion. The foreign affairs unit grew to eleven people, and Simpson was made the head of it. The expansion came just in time considering how much the world was to change in the following year, in a series of seismic upheavals which affected almost every country on earth. In May 1989, Simpson and Adie teamed up in Beijing, covering the infamous massacre in Tiananmen Square:

In the BBC’s offices I found the redoubtable Kate Adie. She had been out in the streets all night with her camera team, and was in bad shape. A man had been killed right beside her, and her arm had been badly grazed in the incident. Together we assembled our reports. There was no time to edit words to pictures, nor even of seeing the pictures. All we could do was write our scripts, record them, and send them off to Hong Kong with the cassettes.

I sat at the computer, numbed by everything I had seen and determined not to get too emotional about it. I’d made real friends among the students in Tiananmen Square. The thought that they might now be dead or injured, that one of their best and most decent manifestations of recent times had been snuffed out in front of me was too disturbing and too painful for me to deal with. And so I took refuge in the old BBC concepts of balance and objectivity; there wasn’t an ounce of emotion in my script.

Kate’s report was very different. It was full of emotion. Six months later, when I finally watched the two reports side by side, I thought that while mine was perfectly accurate it had nothing to do with the real feeling of what had taken place. Hers did. I suppose the two were complimentary, and they were certainly used side by side on the news in Britain. 

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Above. The Morning of 20 May in Tiananmen Square.

A Tale of Two Cities – a Hell of a Dickens:

On 14th July 1989, Simpson was in Paris, reporting on the meeting of the ‘G7′, the leaders of the West’s seven leading capitalist powers, hosted by Francois Mitterrand, the French President. With hindsight, the two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution was perhaps the single moment which best reflected the triumph of liberal democracy over all rival systems of government. The wealth, the grandeur, the personal liberty, the prestige and power which were on display were greater than the world had seen before. Soon, however, the decline in the power of the United States became more obvious. Margaret Thatcher still seemed unassailable as Britain’s prime minister, but would be politically vulnerable within a few months. While President Bush handed over the key to the Bastille which Lafayette had taken with him to America shortly after the Revolution, her gift to Mitterand was a first edition copy of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: inexpensive, and not very good as history. It was a grudging, insular gesture, typical of British attitudes towards France in the 1980s, which had chosen to follow an economic policy which was the exact opposite of Thatcherism. She disapproved not just of France, but of the occasion and the whole business of celebrating revolution. Her view was that evolution was greatly preferable to revolution, which was of little use to those, in 1789 or 1989, who lived under an autocracy which refuses to evolve. Although Mrs Thatcher may have helped to persuade Ronald Reagan that Mikhail Gorbachev was ‘a man to do business with’, according to John Simpson…

It wasn’t Mrs Thatcher’s economic principles which caused the changes in the Soviet bloc, but the simple, verifiable fact that Western capitalist society was effective, rich and reasonably free, while the countries of the communist bloc were manifestly not.

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In the same month, four weeks after her climb-down at the Madrid summit, Thatcher hit back at her Chancellor and Foreign Secretary. Back in London, she unleashed a major cabinet reshuffle, compared at the time to Macmillan’s ‘night of the long knives’ in 1962. Howe was demoted to being Leader of the Commons, though she reluctantly agreed to him having the face-saving title of Deputy Prime Minister, a concession rather diminished when her press officer, Bernard Ingham, instantly told journalists that it was a bit of a non-job. Howe was replaced by the relatively unknown John Major, the former chief secretary. Lawson survived only because the economy was weakening and she thought it too dangerous to lose him just at that point. He was having a bad time on all sides, including from the able shadow chancellor John Smith. When Walters had another pop at his ERM policy, he decided that enough was enough and resigned on 26 October, telling the PM she should treat her ministers better. He was replaced by the still relatively unknown John Major.

Budapest, Berlin & Bucharest: Falling Dominoes of 1989:

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Meanwhile, all around them, the world was changing. On 23rd October I was in Hungary on a third, personal visit, when the country changed its name and constitution. It had dropped the word ‘People’s’ from its title and was henceforth to be known simply as the Republic of Hungary. My first visit, an ‘official’ one, as a member of a British Quaker delegation, had been exactly a year earlier, when the withdrawal of Soviet troops had been announced, along with the decision of the then communist government that the 1956 Revolution, which had begun on the same day, would no longer be referred to by them as a ‘counter-revolution’. A few days later in 1989, East Germany announced the opening of its borders to the West and joyous Berliners began hacking at the Berlin Wall.

Then the communists in Czechoslovakia fell, and at Christmas the Romanian dictator Ceaucescu was dragged from power and shot, along with his wife. According to John Simpson, who also witnessed all these events, including those in Bucharest at close quarters (as pictured above), found among the dictators’ possessions was a Mont Blanc pen given to him by the British Labour Party, presumably during the couple’s visit to London in 1978. This was instigated by the then Foreign Secretary, Dr David Owen who, along with James Callaghan, persuaded the Queen against her will that the Ceaucescus should be invited. The pictures below show them riding in State along the Mall. But I have written about all these events elsewhere.  Suffice it to say, just here, that, since the early seventies, politicians of all persuasions were prepared to overlook Ceaucescu’s increasing megalomania and the unpleasantness of the government he controlled because he represented an independent voice within the Warsaw Pact, refusing to send Romanian forces to crush the ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968. As early as 1972, a left-wing Labour MP had written:

As a result of unconditional acceptances of the past abuses of the legal system, Ceaucescu has declared that steps must be taken to ensure that such injustices can never occur in the future. The importance of democracy is therefore being increasingly stressed and… there is no question of rigging trials as occurred in the past. … Interference by anyone, no matter how important, is unacceptable in Ceaucescu’s view. 

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The not-so-beautiful relationship which came to an end with the shooting of the ‘Tsar and Tsarina’ who built their own palace (below) in Bucharest after visiting Buckingham Palace.  It was due to be completed just weeks after their overthrow.

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After meeting Ceaucescu on his state visit in 1978, Margaret Thatcher, then the leader of the opposition, commented:

I was impressed by the personality of President Ceaucescu … Romania is making sustained efforts for consolidating peace and understanding.  

The ‘domino’ events of the Autumn and Winter of 1989 in the eastern part of the continent, in which Margaret Thatcher had played a ‘bit part’ alongside Reagan and Gorbachev, would have a ripple effect on her own fall from power the following year. That was not something many of us involved in East-West relations anticipated even at the end of that year.

Sources:

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Pan.

John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Macmillan Pan.

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.

 

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A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War – The Final Hundred Days, 1918, from Amiens to the Armistice.   1 comment

The Battle of Amiens, 8-12 August:

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British troops watch as German prisoners are escorted away.

The Allied attacks of July 1918 had shown the effectiveness of ‘all arms’ battle tactics: troops and tanks advancing behind a ‘creeping barrage’ of artillery fire as ground-attack aircraft swept overhead. Local counter-attacks were so successful that they quickly developed into a general offensive. Every day the Germans had to withdraw somewhere along the line; every day the Allies completed the preparations for another local push. The tactical situation seems to have loosened up slightly; the attacks were expensive but not prohibitively so and, as the Allies ground steadily forward, week in, week out, the morale of the German army finally began to fray.

At Amiens in August, these new tactics were put into operation to even greater effect. It was the most brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed of any British-led action on the Western Front. If this never quite matched the pace Ludendorff had set in March, it was better sustained and so, in the long run, more effective. The success of the advance was due to the profound secrecy in which the forces of the attack had been assembled. The offensive began with British, Australian, Canadian and French troops attacking to the east of the city. On the first day, the Australians met their objectives by early afternoon, taking eight thousand prisoners. But it was the Canadian troops who advanced the furthest, eight miles, taking five thousand prisoners. The Canadian Corps, supplied with ten million rounds of small-arms ammunition, were regarded by the Germans as ‘storm-troops’ and their attack from the north was cunningly concealed by the absence of a preliminary artillery bombardment. Instead, a swarm of 456 tanks were deployed alongside the troops, under the cover of the early morning ground mist. Haig himself attacked in the Somme area. As the troops left their trenches to advance, the artillery barrage began firing two hundred yards in front of their starting line. The guns then began to ‘lift’, increasing in range at timed intervals in their ‘creeping barrage’. The barrage included forty adjustments of a hundred yards every three minutes in this phase of the attack.

The advance slowed by the 12th, as the Allies over-reached their heavy artillery support and ran up against German troops determined to defend their 1917 trench positions, aided by the tangled wastes of the old Somme battlefield. On paper, the material gains by Allies did not appear extensive, for both in ground won and prisoners taken, Germany had frequently exceeded such gains, though it had failed to consolidate its offensives. By contrast, the Allied advance had not only given an indication of how the war could be won, but it had also achieved its essential purpose of striking a deadly blow at the spirit of an already weakening enemy. Ludendorff later confessed that…

August 8th was the black day of the German army in the history of the war. … It put the decline of our fighting force beyond all doubt.

After 8th August, the Kaiser concluded that…

We are at the end of our resources; the war must be ended.

At a conference held at Spa, the German generals informed him and the Imperial Chancellor that there was no chance of victory and that peace negotiations should be opened as soon as possible. The most that could be hoped for was an orderly retirement to the prepared defences of the Hindenburg Line, a strategic defensive action which would win reasonable terms from the Allies. Ludendorff himself offered his resignation, which was not accepted. He had lost hope of any gains, and his one remaining aim was to avoid an abject surrender. This was a far from the optimistic mood required to enter upon the most difficult operations which were still ahead.

The Hundred Days Offensive:

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When the initial momentum of the assault at Amiens died away, Haig was no longer willing to batter against stiffening opposition. Instead, he set the Third Army in motion farther north. This proved a more economical method of attack and from this point onwards a series of short, closely related offensives kept the Germans retiring until they reached the Hindenburg Line, from which they had started their offensive in the Spring. Foch was determined to hustle Ludendorff out of all his positions before he could entrench himself along the Hindenburg Line, driving the whole vast German army back to the narrow gut which led to Germany. But, at this time, he anticipated a gradual advance which would see the war continuing into 1919. As soon as serious resistance developed, Foch would, therefore, call a halt to the advance in that sector, only to renew it in another one. Tanks permitted him to mount a new offensive rapidly and frequently, so that his strategy became one of conducting a perpetual arpeggio along the whole of the Front, wearing down the enemy’s line and his reserves. Of this great plan,  to which Haig had undoubtedly contributed, the latter was also to be its chief executant. But, being closer to the field of battle, Haig was steadily coming to believe that, this year, it really would be all over before Christmas.

The ‘Hundred Days Offensive’ was a series of Allied engagements, that put continuous pressure on the retreating Germans. It began at Amiens and finished on 11th November. In all, there were a further twenty-two battles. Although the Germans realised they were to be denied victory they fought tenaciously, inflicting heavy casualties. The advance to victory, like the Somme retreat, cannot be painted in broad lines since it was composed of a multitude of interlinked actions. The first stage, completed by the first week in September, was the forcing of the enemy back to the Hindenburg Line, an achievement made certain by the breaking by the Canadians on 2nd September of the famous Drocourt-Quéant switch. Meanwhile, in the south, the Americans under Pershing had found immediate success at Saint-Mihiel on 12th August, flattening out the Saint-Mihiel salient, cutting it off, and advancing northwards towards Sedan. The next stage was the breaching of the Hindenburg defences, and while Pershing attacked towards Meziéres, the Belgians and the British attacked in the north towards Ghent, movements which took place towards the end of August. Between these movements, the Hindenburg Line was breached at many points, and the Germans were compelled to make extensive evacuations.

The Allied advance was slower than had been expected, however, and the German army was able to retain its cohesion. Nevertheless, it was sadly pressed, and its fighting spirit was broken. The German soldiers had been led to believe that the Allies were as exhausted and as short of supplies as they themselves were. During their spring offensives, however, they had captured stores of allied clothing, food and metals which had opened their eyes to the deception being practised on them. Their casualties had been enormous, and the Allied reserves seemed unlimited. Their letters from home told of their families’ distress, making further resistance seem both hopeless and pointless.

Yet the news of this turn of the tide at Amiens and in its aftermath did not immediately change the popular mood on the home front in Britain. Everybody was over-tired and underfed, and an influenza epidemic was claiming hundreds of victims each week. My grandfather’s battalion, training at Catterick barracks to go to France, was almost wiped out. He was one of few survivors since he was an underage recruit, his mother presenting his birth certificate at the camp gates.   All over the country, there were strikes among munition-workers, followed by trouble with transport services and in the coal mines. Even the London police joined in. These difficulties were overcome very simply by increasing wages. Those in authority, perhaps more aware than most that the last stage of the ghastly shooting-match was finally coming to an end, and knowing something of the state of the German people, were anxiously questioning themselves as to whether a rot might set in.

At this juncture, it was the turn of the British War Cabinet to have doubts, and, as it would have put the brake on Allenby in Palestine, so it would also have held back Haig. But, as John Buchan wrote in 1935, the British commander had reached the point which great soldiers come to sooner or later when he could trust his instinct. On 9th September he told Lord Milner that the war would not drag on till next July, as was the view at home, but was on the eve of a decision. Buchan continued:

He had the supreme moral courage to take upon himself the full responsibility for a step which, if it failed, would blast his repute and lead to dreadful losses, but which, if it succeeded, would in his belief mean the end of the War, and prevent civilisation from crumbling through sheer fatigue.

Haig was justified in his fortitude. With the order, “Tout le monde à la Bataille,” Foch began the final converging battles of the war. One of the most major battles was that of Meuse-Argonne, which began on 26th September and was the American Expeditionary Force’s largest offensive, featuring over one and a quarter million troops by the time it ended on 11th November. This attack proved to be more difficult than the one at Saint-Mihiel on 12th August, as they faced strong German defences in the dense Argonne forest. The weather did not help; it rained on forty of the battle’s forty-seven. On the 26th September, two British and two American divisions faced fifty-seven weak German divisions behind the strongest entrenchment in history. It took the British troops just one day to cross the battlefield at Passchendaele. Brigadier General J. Harington of the 46th (North Midland) Division commented on his troops’ breaching of the Hindenburg Line on 29th September by telling them, You boys have made history. They had been given the difficult task of crossing the heavily defended St Quentin Canal, a feat which they had accomplished using rafts and pulled lines, with troops wearing cork lifebelts taken from cross-Channel steamships. Prisoners were captured at the Bellenglise Tunnel, which had been dug under the canal by the Germans after Allied soldiers fired a German ‘howitzer’ into it.

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By the 29th, the combined British and American troops had crossed the Canal du Nord and the Scheldt Canal, and within a week they were through the whole defence system and in open country. Despite their adherence to outdated tactics that brought about heavy casualties, the Americans prevailed and continued their assault right up to the end of the war. By 8th October the last remnants of the Hindenburg zone had disappeared in a cataclysm. Foch’s conception had not been fully realised, however; Pershing had been set too hard a task and was not far enough forward when the Hindenburg system gave, pinning the enemy into the trap which had been set. Nevertheless, by 10th October Germany had been beaten by the US Army in a battle which Foch described as a classic example of the military art.

The Collapse of Germany’s Allies:

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The day of doom was only postponed, and Ludendorff no longer had any refuge from the storm. Long before his broken divisions could reach the Meuse Germany would be on its knees.  The signs of Germany’s military decline were quickly read by her partners. It was now losing all its allies. They had been the guardians of Germany’s flanks and rear, and if they fell the country would be defenceless. On 15th September, the much-ridiculed Allied armies comprising British, French, Greek, Italian and Serbian troops, attacked the German-led but mainly Bulgar forces in Macedonia, moving forward into Salonica, and within a fortnight Bulgaria’s front had collapsed and its government sought an armistice. This was concluded on 29th September at Thessalonica. British forces were moving across the country towards the Turkish frontier. French columns had reached the Danube and the Serbs had made a good start on the liberation of their homeland.

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The Turks held out for a further month, during which the British conquered Syria, then they too surrendered. On 19th September, General Allenby in Palestine had opened up an action which provided a perfect instance of how, by surprise and mobility, a decisive victory may be won almost without fighting. Algerians, Indian Muslims and Hindus, Arab tribesmen, Africans and Jewish battalions came together to liberate the Holy Land from Ottoman rule. Breaking the Turkish defence in the plain of Sharon, Allenby sent his fifteen thousand cavalry in a wide sweep to cut the enemy’s line of communications and block his retreat, while Prince Faisal and T. E. Lawrence (a young British officer who had attained an amazing ascendancy over the Arab tribes) created a diversion east of the Jordan. This played an important role in Allenby’s victory at Megiddo. In two days, the Turkish armies to the west of Jordan had been destroyed, its right-wing being shattered, while its army on the east bank was being shepherded north by the merciless Arabs to its destruction. By 1st October Damascus was in British hands, and Aleppo surrendered on 26th October. The elimination of Bulgaria exposed both the Danube and Constantinople to attack and the French and British forces diverged on these two objectives. A Franco-British force sailed in triumph past Gallipoli and took possession of Constantinople. With her armies in the east shattered, Turkey made peace on 30th September by the Armistice of Mudros.

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The Allied armies in the Balkans still had a fair way to travel before they could bring Austria-Hungary under attack, but it was a journey they never had to make.: the Habsburg Empire was falling to pieces of its own accord. October saw Czech nationalists take over in Prague and proclaim it the capital of an independent Czechoslovak state, while the Poles of Galicia announced their intention of taking the province into the new Polish state – a programme disputed by the Ruthenians of Eastern Galicia, who looked towards the Ukrainian Republic for support and integration. At the same time representatives of the various south-Slav peoples of the empire – Slovenes, Croats and Bosnians, repudiated Austro-Hungarian rule and expressed, with surprising unanimity, their desire to fuse with Serbia and Montenegro to form a single Yugoslav state. All that was left was for revolutions in Vienna and Budapest to declare in favour of separate Austrian and Hungarian republics and the Habsburg Empire had ceased to exist.

Meanwhile, on the anniversary of Caporetto, Italy had made her last advance and the Austrian forces, which had suffered desperately for four years and were now at the end of their endurance, melted away. So did the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  On 3rd-4th November an Armistice was signed at Villa Giusti with Austria-Hungary, and the Dual Monarchy immediately broke up into fragments. The Emperor was left alone and without friends in the vast echoing corridors of the Palace of Schönbrunn. Thus, even as it resisted Allied pressure on the Western Front, Germany saw all its chief allies fall away, collapse and disintegrate.

The Internal Collapse of Germany:

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These blows broke the nerve of the German High Command. Ludendorff told the political leaders that an armistice was imperative, and Prince Max of Baden was appointed Chancellor to use his international reputation for moderation in the negotiations. Ludendorff stuck to his idea of a strategic defence to compel better terms, till his physical health failed and with it his nerve; but the civilian statesmen believed that the army was beyond hope and that there must be no delay in making peace. From the meeting at Spa on 29th September till the early days of November there was a frenzied effort by the German statesmen to win something by negotiation which their armies were incapable of enforcing. While Foch continued to play his deadly arpeggio in the West, Germany strove by diplomacy to arrest the inevitable. They knew what the soldiers had not realised, that the splendid fortitude of the German people was breaking, disturbed by Allied propaganda and weakened with suffering. The condition of their country was too desperate to wait for an honourable truce at the front since the home front was dissolving more quickly than the battlefront. The virus of revolution, which Germany had fostered in Russia, was also stealing into her own veins. Popular feeling was on the side of Scheidemann’s view, …

“Better a terrible end than terror without end.”

On 3rd October, the new German Chancellor made a request to Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, to take in hand the restoration of peace on the basis of his Fourteen Points, published in January as a way of justifying the USA’s involvement in the war and ensuring future peace. In particular, they were interested in securing a general disarmament, open diplomacy (no secret treaties) and the right of Germany to self-determination. Wilson replied that the armistice now sought by Germany was a matter for the Allied leaders in the field. In the exchange of notes which followed, it became clear that the Allies demanded little short of unconditional surrender. Wilson’s points were, however, used as the basis for the negotiation of the peace treaty at Versailles the following year. Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister, remained sceptical about them:

“God was satisfied with Ten Commandments. Wilson gave us fourteen.”

Faced with the certainty of being faced with a demand for an unconditional surrender from the Allies, Ludendorff now wished to fight on, but neither the new government nor the people supported him. Short of proper clothing and fuel, weakened by semi-starvation and racked by the influenza epidemic which killed 1,722 in Berlin on one day, 15th October, they demanded peace and turned on the leaders who had promised victory but brought defeat.  Ludendorff resigned on the 26th, and the High Command was superseded by the proselytes of democracy. Everywhere in Germany kings and courts were tumbling down, and various brands of socialists were assuming power. Steps were taken to transfer the real power to the Reichstag. President Wilson had refused to enter negotiations with military and “monarchical autocrats” and therefore required “not negotiation but surrender.” But the height of the storm is not the moment to recast a constitution, and for the old Germany, the only way was not reform but downfall.

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With political unrest in Germany, it was thought the removal of the Kaiser would placate the popular mood. Civil War was threatened since the Kaiser, despite relentless pressure, was unwilling to abdicate. On 29th October, he left Berlin for Spa, the army headquarters, where Hindenburg had to tell him that the army would not support him against the people. Some army officers proposed that he go to the front and die an honourable death in battle. It was now early November. On the 3rd, the sailors of the German fleet mutinied rather than sail out into a death-or-glory mission against the British. By 4th November, the mutiny was general, and Kiel was in the hands of the mutineers.

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The same day, the army fell into confusion in Flanders, and the Austrian armistice exposed the Bavarian front to hostile attack. The temper of many army divisions was reported to be equally uncertain as the navy. An armistice had now become a matter of life or death, and on 6th November the German delegates left Berlin to sue for one. President Wilson had indicated that an armistice was on offer to the civilian leaders of Germany, but not to the military or the monarchy. Any hopes that this armistice would take the form of a truce between equals were quickly dispelled by an examination of its terms. Haig and Milner were in favour of moderation in its demands, but Foch was implacable, arguing that it must be such as to leave the enemy no power of resistance, and be a pledge both for reparations and security.

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A few days later the mutineers had occupied the principal cities of North-west, and an insurrection had broken out in Munich. On 9th November revolutionaries occupied the streets of Berlin. A Republic was proclaimed from the steps of the Reichstag and, at last bowing to the inevitable, the Kaiser abdicated and fled to the Netherlands, where he lived out his life in the Netherlands. Already, on 7th November, the German delegates had passed through the Allied lines to receive the terms drawn up by the Allied Commanders. They had no choice but to accept Foch’s terms for what was an unconditional surrender, but it also became clear that the Armistice could not have been refused by the Allies, both on grounds of common humanity and in view of the exhaustion of their own troops, yet it was negotiated before the hands of fighting Germans were formally held up in the field, leading to the accusation that the politicians who signed it had stabbed the German army in the back. In Buchan’s view, …

… It provided the victors with all that they desired and all the conquered could give. Its terms meant precisely what they said, so much and no more. Wilson’s Fourteen Points were not a part of them; the Armistice had no connection with any later peace treaties. It may be argued with justice that the negotiations by the various Governments between October 5th and November 5th involved a declaration of principle by the Allies which they were morally bound to observe in the ultimate settlement. But such a declaration bore no relation to the Armistice. That was an affair between soldiers, a thing sought by Germany under the pressure of dire necessity to avoid the utter destruction of her armed manhood. It would have come about though Mr. Wilson had never indited a single note.  

There was only one mitigating circumstance. President Wilson had declared that the frontiers of post-war Europe would be decided by its people, not its politicians. Self-determination was to be the guiding principle in this process; plebiscites would take place and make clear the people’s will. On this basis, Germany would not do too badly. This was why the Germans had chosen to negotiate with Woodrow Wilson and not his European allies. True, the President had indicated that there would be exceptions to this general rule: Alsace-Lorraine would have to go back to France and the new Polish state, whose existence all parties had agreed upon, must be given access to the sea. But, if Wilson stuck to his Fourteen Points, Germany should emerge from the war clipped rather than shorn.

The Armistice and its Terms:

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With no other option available to them, the German representatives met their Allied counterparts in railway carriage 2419D in a forest near Compiegne on 8th November. In 1940, Hitler symbolically used the same railway carriage to accept the French surrender. The location was chosen to ensure secrecy and no one in the German delegation was a senior military figure. The German Army High Command were keen to remain distant from the proceedings to preserve their reputations. There was little in the way of negotiation, and the Allies presented the Germans with the terms and if they did not sign, the war would continue. The Germans had three days to decide. Early in the morning of 11th November, at 5.20 a.m. to be precise, they concluded that they had no alternative but to agree to the stringent Allied terms and they signed the Armistice document. It detailed what Germany was required to do to secure the peace. Thirty-four sections laid out reparations and territory that had to be given up. Material to be surrendered included:

1,700 aircraft

2,500 field guns

2,500 heavy guns

3,000 Minenwerfer (German trench mortars, nicknamed ‘Moaning Minnies’ by British soldiers)

5,000 locomotives

5,000 motor lorries

25,000 machine guns

150,000 wagons

All submarines

The most important section of the document as far as most of the troops were concerned was the very first:

Cessation of hostilities by land and in the air six hours after the signing of the Armistice (Naval hostilities were also to cease).

It was agreed that at 11 o’ clock on that morning the Great War would come to an end. At two minutes to eleven, a machine-gun opened up at about two hundred metres from the leading British Commonwealth troops at Grandrieu. John Buchan described that last morning’s action:

In the fog and chill of Monday morning, November 11th, the minutes passed slowly along the front. An occasional shot, an occasional burst of firing, told that peace was not yet. Officers had their watches in their hands, and the troops waited with the same grave composure with which they had fought. At two minutes to eleven, opposite the South African brigade, which represented the eastern-most point reached by the British armies, a German machine-gunner, after firing off a belt without pause, was seen to stand up beside his weapon, take off his helmet, bow, and then walk slowly to the rear. Suddenly, as the watch-hands touched eleven, there came a second of expectant silence, and then a curious rippling sound, which observers far behind the front likened to the noise of a light wind. It was the sound of men cheering from the Vosges to the sea.

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In fact, some US Army artillery guns continued to fire until 4 p.m., believing the sound of nearby engineering work to be enemy gunfire. But it was soon confirmed that this was indeed the last day of a First World War that had lasted 1,568 days. In the field since 15th July, Germany had lost to the British armies 188,700 prisoners and 2,840 guns; to the French 139,000 prisoners and 1,880 guns; to the Americans 44,000 and 1,421 guns; to the Belgians 14,500 prisoners and 474 guns. In the field, because she could not do otherwise, she made a full and absolute surrender. The number of Commonwealth personnel who died on 11th November was 863, and almost eleven thousand were killed, wounded or recorded as missing on 11th November. The following are the records of the last of the combatants’ countrymen to die in battle in the Great War:

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The last Australians to be killed in action on the Western Front were Sappers Charles Barrett and Arthur Johnson and Second Corporal Albert Davey, who had been killed at Sambre-Oise Canal on 4th November. Private Henry Gunther’s death, recorded above, is described in the US Army’s 79th Divisional history:

Almost as he fell, the gunfire died away and an appalling silence prevailed.

Private Gunther’s death was the last of 53,402 losses sustained by the US Army during its sixth-month participation in the war. In the same period, there were 360,000 casualties out of the 1.2 million men in the British Army.  Sixty years later, in eight years of fighting in Vietnam, 58,220 Americans were killed. While the loss of so many young men in Vietnam had a significant impact on American society and culture in the late twentieth century, the losses of World War One had, arguably, an even more profound effect on the USA from 1918 to 1943, when the country finally got over these costs of getting involved in European conflicts and agreed to send its soldiers back to the continent. Another important social effect, though a secondary one, was that resulting from the participation of two hundred thousand African-American troops who served in France. Having been integrated into the fighting forces in western Europe, many of them returned to continuing poverty and segregation in their home states and counties.

Poetry & Pity:

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In Shrewsbury, as the bells were ringing to celebrate the armistice on the 11th November, the parents of Wilfred Owen received a telegram informing them of their son’s death. Although like his friend and fellow soldier-poet, Siegfried Sassoon, Owen had come very close to becoming a pacifist during his convalescence at Craiglockart War Hospital in Scotland, where he had met Sassoon in August 1917, he had insisted on being sent back to the front in September 1918. He had felt that he had to return to France in order remain a spokesman, in his poetry, for the men in the front line, through sharing their experiences and their suffering. on 4th October, after most of his company had been killed, he and a corporal captured a German machine gun and scores of prisoners; for this feat, he was awarded the Military Cross. But a month later, and just a week before the Armistice, on 4th November 1918, he was trying to construct a make-shift bridge so as to lead his company over the Sambre Canal, in the face of heavy machine-gun fire, when he himself was killed. Just before he left England for the last time on 31st August 1918, Owen was planning a volume of poetry that he never lived to publish, but which he thought of as a kind of propaganda. He scribbled a preface for it, which began:

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.

Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.

Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.

My subject is War, and the pity of War.

The Poetry is in the pity.

Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.

Owen’s best and most typical poetry, written earlier in the war, is in harmony with this Preface. As Andrew Motion has written more recently (2003), Owen believed that it was still possible to celebrate individual acts of courage and to commemorate losses, but not to glorify conflict as such. He stressed the tragic waste of war, and so his characteristic attitude is of compassion rather than anger. He fills us with a sense of pity for the dead who died such agonising and undignified deaths. He makes us painfully aware of all the good that these young men, British and German, could have achieved if only they had lived. Two types of tension give a cutting edge to Owen’s best poetry. He cannot quite make up his mind about whether God exists and whether pacifism is the only answer to the problem of war. So he carries on an internal debate on these two problems just below the surface of his meaning: the consequent tension gives a terrible intensity to his poetry. Two of his later poems reject Christianity more openly: Futility arraigns God in the most direct way for ever allowing Creation to take place:

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth’s sleep at all?

A less well-known poem, The End, expresses the most serious doubts that Owen ever put into poetry. He asks what will happen on the Last Day:

Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth

All earth will He annul, all tears assuage?

His pious mother removed the second despairing question mark from these lines when she chose them for his tombstone, but her more pessimistic son ended his poem with a speech by Earth who says:

It is death.

Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified,

Nor my titanic tears, the seas, be dried.

His finest poetry, however, is not that in which he despairs; it is that in which his faith and his doubts quiver in the balance. But in his letters Owen sometimes puts the case for Christian pacifism with passionate intensity:

Already I have comprehended a light which will never filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was, Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed, but do not kill… pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.

Arguments such as this are made explicitly in his letters but are only hinted at below the surface of his poems. Sassoon was more negative in tone, better at rousing indignation against warmongers than at raising pity for dead soldiers. But in some of his poems he managed to do both:

He’s young, he hated war! How should he die

When cruel old campaigners win safe through!

Such tragedies impelled Sassoon to his desperate protest, O Jesus, make it stop! Owen and Sassoon impelled other poets, both civilians (like Edith Wharton, below) and soldiers, to similar expressions of pity or protest. Kipling, so often unfairly dismissed for his earlier jingoism, compares the modern soldier’s agony to Christ’s agony in Gethsemane, 1914-18, and Edward Thomas’ As The Team’s Head-Brass tells of a Gloucestershire farm labourer who cannot move a fallen tree because his mate has been killed in France. This simple example typifies all that the men might have accomplished whose lives were wasted in war. If Owen had lived, it is generally agreed among literary critics that he would have gone on to be at least as great as his inspiration, John Keats. Perhaps more importantly, his maxim has held firm through the years, even in wars which have generally been considered to be ‘just’. ‘Pity’ and ‘truthfulness’ remain the crucial ingredients, especially when the realities of war are blurred by euphemism, propaganda and ‘fake news’.

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Sources:

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History (Europe since 1815). Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Fiona Waters (ed.) (2007), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green: Transatlantic Press.

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany.  Chichester: Summersdale Publishers.

E. L. Black (ed.) (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (eds.) (2003), 101 Poems Against War. London: Faber & Faber.

Irene Richards, J.B. Goodson & J. A. Morris (1938), A Sketch-Map  History of the Great War and After, 1914-35. London: Harrap.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

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A Hundred Years Ago – The Great War: Spring into Summer, 1918.   Leave a comment

‘Aces High’ downed – Red Baron & Prancing Horse:

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The Royal Air Force, formed on 1st April, celebrated by shooting down German ace Manfred von Richthofen three weeks later. He was the ‘ace of aces’, the fighter pilot who brought down the most enemy aircraft. He had begun the war as a cavalry officer before transferring to the German air force. He led a fighter wing known as the ‘Flying Circus’ because of their brightly painted aircraft.  Von Richthofen’s own personal machines were painted bright red, giving rise to his nickname, the Red Baron. Between September 1916 and April 1918 he brought down eighty allied aircraft before he was finally brought down. One RAF fighter pilot, Mick Mannock, refused to toast von Richthofen on his demise, saying “I hope the bastard roasted on the way down.” Later, in the summer, British novelist D H Lawrence was married to Frieda von Richthofen, a distant cousin of Manfred.

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In June, Italy’s highest-scoring fighter ace, Francesco Baracca, was killed. His aircraft featured a prancing horse symbol painted on the side. Years later Francesco’s mother suggested to a young racing driver called Enzo Ferrari that he adopt the symbol for his racing cars.

The Australian Corps go fishing:

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Above: An Australian Imperial Guard keeps watch.

The renowned Australian Corps came under the command of the British Army’s General Rawlinson early in 1918. He was pleased with the men and wrote in his diary about their unusual pastimes in the trenches:

They are certainly original fighters and up to all sorts of dodges, some of which would shock a strict disciplinarian. Some of the German shells were falling short into the pools of the Somme river and exploded under water. Two Australians spent the day in a boat rowing about and watching for a shell to explode and then picked up the stunned fish. They wore their gas masks to prevent recognition!

Third Battle of the Aisne, 27th May – 9th June:

Aiming to tie the Allies down to allow a main attack in the north, the Germans launched their third large-scale attack at Chemin des Dames and the River Aisne with a new storm breaking on the Aisne heights, a ferocious artillery barrage that shattered French units massed on the front line. It was estimated that two million shells were fired in the four-and-a-half-hour-long preliminary bombardment. By the evening, the French gains in the three great actions had vanished like smoke, and the Germans had crossed the river, advancing fourteen miles on the first day, an unprecedented success on the Western Front. Operation Blücher-Yorck was a great success for the German commander, Erich Ludendorff. On the second day, he was beyond the Vesle, and on the third, his vanguard was looking down from the heights of the Tardenois on the waters of the Marne. It was the swiftest advance made in the West since the beginning of trench warfare.

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Pleased with his success, Ludendorff then changed his plans and took forces reserved for a northern attack to support a drive westwards to Paris. The message painted on Germans trucks read, On to Paris! But the advance ran out of supplies and momentum as American troops, fighting their first engagement of the war at Cantigny, together with French forces, stood in the way. Captain Lloyd Williams of the US Marines in Belleau Wood summed up the Americans’ mood; Retreat? Hell, we only just got here! Williams was killed in the ensuing battle that followed on 6th June. The Marines began a counter-attack to take the wood. On the first day, they lost 1,087 men, more than had been lost in the whole of the Marines’ history to that date. Nevertheless, after three weeks of brutal fighting, they eventually took the wood. Meanwhile, on 9th June, Ludendorff had tried to cut off the Allied salient between the two great dents he had made but failed again. His position was hopeless; he was the victim of his own early successes.

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Above: New British troops arrive at a port in France.

Battle of Matz, 9th – 13th June; Advent of the Americans:

Operation Gneisenau, a further German attack, was intended to straighten their forward line. Despite inadequate planning, they pushed the French back, gaining six miles of territory and inflicting heavier casualties than they suffered. However, the offensive floundered and French counter-attacks forced the Germans to halt proceedings after only a few days. In the course of this Spring Offensive, as it became known, they had lost 963,000 men. By this time their surviving soldiers had become so disheartened and disillusioned by their failure to break through the Allied defences that they began shouting abuse at their own reinforcements, calling them, War prolongers! At the same time, ten thousand Americans were arriving each day in France. By the summer of 1918 half a million ‘doughboys’ were on the front line. The British Army was also reinforced, having suffered a 36% casualty rate during the Spring Offensive, with 540,000 new recruits being sent to the Front between March and August. But the Germans facing them still had 207 divisions in all, compared with 203 Allied divisions. Britain also employed manual workers from several nationalities to work in France:

Chinese               96,000

Indians                48,000

South Africans     21,000

Egyptians            15,000

West Indians        8,000

On 19 July, Honduras became the last country to join the war, declaring war on Germany.

Heroines at Home and at the Front:

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Above: Women filling shells.

Back in ‘Blighty’, after an explosion at the Chilwell National Shell Filling Factory in Nottingham killed 134 employees, it was suggested that the Victoria Cross be awarded to staff for their subsequent bravery in going about their own work. Sadly this was not done, as the medal could only be given to individuals in uniform. The number of women in non-domestic employment in April 1918 had risen to 4,808,000, 1.5 million more than four years earlier.

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At the Front, two British women who had earned themselves the nickname from Belgian troops, the two Madonnas of Pervyse, Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker, were injured in a gas attack in 1918. They had travelled to Ypres in 1914, setting up an independent first aid station. They were awarded seventeen medals for bravery.

The Second Battle of the Marne, 15 July – 5 August:

The May and June attacks by the Germans had driven the French back from the Aisne to the Marne. There are two explanations for the surprising extent of the German advance, shown on the map below. First, instead of attacking in ‘waves’ of men, they advanced in small groups pressing forward where the opposition was weak and keeping their reserves close at hand to exploit any gap created. Secondly, the British Fifth Army was unusually weak: the line recently taken over from the French had not been put into a proper state of defence; Haig had massed his reserves in the north, where he expected an attack; and after Passchendaele, Lloyd George had retained many reserves in England to prevent unprofitable squandering of life. However, by early July, the German successes had failed to bring outright victory.

The advances had so exceeded Ludendorff’s expectations that he was unprepared to exploit them. The British troops offered magnificent resistance in response to Haig’s famous order, With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end. Finally, the arrival of Allied reserves, in fresh condition from Palestine and Italy, turned the tide.

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Ludendorff still hoped to create a diversion that would allow a decisive attack in Flanders. His last offensive began on 15th July, east and west of Rheims. Divisions drove forwards, crossing the River Marne in several places, but then they were held. The advance achieved nothing and instead the Germans had fallen into the Allied trap. Hitherto Foch had stood patiently on the defensive, hoarding his assets. He had tried almost too highly the fortitude of the British soldier. Now he had got his reserve, and Haig, to augment it, had dangerously thinned his own front in the north, to the consternation of the War Cabinet. The moment had come to use it. On 18th July Foch counter-attacked on the right flank of the new German salient and drove it in. This attack was led by masses of light tanks which forced the Germans to retire. It was not a great counterstroke, but it forced Ludendorff to pause and consider. He halted and then began to withdraw from the Marne pocket.

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Foch now had freedom of movement, for with him, at last, was the full American army. By July, there were already a million Americans in France. The German command had long been aware of how great this menace was, but the German press had told the people that it was only a force in buckram. Even up to July this newspaper belittlement continued. But at Chateau-Thierry in June an American contingent had fought with furious gallantry, and on 15th July in the same area, one American division and elements from another had rolled back the German assault. These were the troops who, according to the German press, would not land in Europe unless they could swim like fishes or fly like birds. They had proved their worth in pushing the Germans back to their March starting positions.

Preparations for the Peace Offensive:

But the true counter-attack was not to come until August, at Amiens. In July, the Allied attacks showed the effectiveness of ‘all-arms’ battle tactics, with troops and tanks advancing behind an artillery ‘creeping barrage’ while ground-attack aircraft swept overhead. At Amiens, these were to be put into operation to great effect. The plan for the Peace Offensive, which aimed at compelling a German surrender, was wholly British. Haig had now come to the height of his powers and was a different man from the cautious, orthodox soldier of the earlier days of the war. He had not always been happy with his French colleagues; in some ways, he had been too similar to Pétain, and in every other way too dissimilar to Foch, to be quite at ease with either of them. But now his mind and Foch’s seemed to be on the same ‘wavelength’. The Chief of Allied forces was now elevated enough to take advice, and from Haig, he drew not only his chief weapon – the tank – but also many of his tactics, as well as certain key points in his strategy. The British Army had suffered far more than the French in terms of casualties, but they were still ready to take the chief role, one which they retained until the last day of the war. This was a measure of the reverence in which Foch held his ally. The British ‘Tommy’ was, by now, well-disciplined, as the following notice, pasted into their pay-books, suggests:

Keep your mouths shut! The success of any operation we carry out depends chiefly on surprise. Do not talk – when you know that your unit is making preparations for an attack, don’t talk about them to men in other units, or to stangers, and keep your mouth shut, especially in public places.

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British troops at Verneuil, 19 May 1918.

This secrecy was essential to success at Amiens since many previous battles had shown the Germans fully aware of Allied plans. The tables were now turned, with British intelligence also far more effective than it had been previously. Detailed preparations could be made on the basis of information obtained which identified 95% of German artillery positions. Ernest James RollingsIn particular, Lt Ernest Rollings MC of the 17th Armoured Car Battalion (pictured left) went ‘behind enemy lines’ to recover detailed plans of the Hindenberg Line. On his return, he commented that it was by far the best fighting day I have ever had. In 1931, a newspaper report described the Welshman as ‘The Man Who Ended the War’. Perhaps the journalist who wrote of it thought that he deserved a ‘niche in the pantheon’ alongside that other iconic Welshman, and PM, David Lloyd George (below), the Man who won the War.

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Above: David Lloyd George at the height of his power.

The Temper and Temperature of Britain:

For now, however, the temper of Britain through the spring and summer was heavy and apathetic, but it revealed by little spurts of violence how near men and women were living to the outer edges of their nerves. The crisis of March and April had produced a new resolution, but it was a resolution which had no exhilaration in it and little hope. People had begun to doubt if the War would ever end. The night was still so black that they had forgotten that the darkest hour might presage the dawn. But as the months of ‘darkness’ dragged on, and the word from the battle-fields was only of still further retreats and losses, the popular mood sank again into a dull listlessness. To make matters worse, in June there was an outbreak of ‘Spanish ‘flu’. Thirty people died in Lancashire, but no one had any idea how many millions more it was about to kill.

For Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, the soldier-poets, the satire they wrote was partly the product of the feeling that they belonged to a different race from the civilians they found themselves among while convalescing at Craiglockart Hospital near Edinburgh. Sassoon published his satirical poems in Counter-Attack (1918). Many of them were protest poems indignantly implying that the war was being needlessly prolonged by politicians and generals who could have stopped it. While Owen was on invalid leave in England, if he met civilians who talked too glibly about the war, he would thrust in front of their eyes photographs of horribly mutilated soldiers. But he, together with Sassoon and Osbert Sitwell, reserved his satirical condemnation for the rich, old men who were making a profit out of the war and did not share the soldiers’ terrible discomforts and dangers, yet concealed their selfishness behind a front of self-righteous flag-waving and jingoism. In his poem, The Parable of the Old Men and the Young, Owen envisages Abraham killing Isaac despite God’s command to sacrifice a ram instead:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

This indignant mood that led these soldier-poets to satirise civilians is revealed in a letter which Owen wrote to his mother from Scarborough in July 1918:

This morning at 8.20 we heard a boat torpedoed in the bay, about a mile out. I wish the Boche would have the pluck to come right in and make a clean sweep of the pleasure boats, and the promenaders on the Spa, and all the stinking Leeds and Bradford war-profiteers now reading ‘John Bull’ on Scarborough Sands.

The Return of the War Horse & the Fall of the Virgin:

The morale of the soldiers at the Front throughout the spring and early summer matched the cynical protests of people and poets on the home front, for the war to be brought to an end. It was perhaps best summed up in the following song:   

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Meanwhile, preparations for the offensive continued throughout the summer. Fifteen thousand cavalry horses prepared for action. Cavalrymen had operated as unmounted infantry for most of the war since there were few opportunities for horse-mounted soldiers to fight effectively on the typical Western Front battlefield. As the fighting became more open again, cavalry began to be utilised once more.

Earlier in the war, in the town of Albert, near to the Somme, a statue of the Virgin Mary outside a church was hit. It didn’t fall completely and remained, leaning over. It was reckoned that when it finally fell the war would end. At the beginning of August, the statue toppled. Trench warfare on both sides was certainly coming to an end, thanks to the tanks. But as the Germans left their trenches in the summer of 1918, they left notices for the British to warn them that the war was far from won and lost:

Dear Tommy,

You are quite welcome to what we are leaving. When we stop we shall stop, and stop you in a manner you won’t appreciate.

Fritz 

Sources:

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale.

Fiona Waters (2007), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green: Transatlantic Press.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Irene Richards, J. B. Goodson & J. A. Morris (1938), A Sketch-Map of the Great War and After, 1914-1935. London: Harrap.

E. L. Black (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

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